Dina Temple-Raston is NPR’s globe-trotting terrorism gal.
After 10 years, she found herself wondering: How did the terrorists get this way? She couldn’t get over how young many recruits were. Al-Qaida seemed to attract men in their 20s and 30s. But the Islamic State was attracting teenagers.
Off she went to interview teens who’d made disastrously terrible decisions, as well as a gaggle of brain scientists. The result is her six-episode Audible podcast series, “What Were You Thinking? Inside the Adolescent Brain.”
As it turns out, the adolescent brain is sort of hard-wired to make decisions many parents (and cops and judges) find wrong. And in a strange way, that’s reassuring.
Take, for instance, Ryan Green in Paducah, Kentucky. “You meet Ryan and it’s hard not to like him,” says Temple-Raston. But he’s a guy who hacked 77,000 computers. Did he do it to screw the world?
It seems he was more concerned about being considered an “elite” hacker and earning street cred — something a whole lot of adolescents crave. Peer respect activates the “feel-good chemical” in the brain — dopamine — which seems to push young people to take risks and work incredibly hard at something, even when that something is not what you’d put on your college applications.
Temple-Raston doesn’t just describe what the brain scientists are discovering about how kids are wired. She travels to places working on innovative solutions to the problems — whether that’s teen radicalization, suicide or murderous rage. In the case of teen hackers, she went to Israel. There the government scouts for computer talent at a very young age and nurtures kids so they can work for the good of the country — rather than against it. Maybe America needs to do the same.
Temple-Raston also interviewed Abdullahi Yusuf, a Minnesota high school football player who was just about to board a plane to join the Islamic State group when authorities stopped him. Turns out it’s quite possible that this was not a young man drawn to cruelty but the opposite. He’d read about women and children suffering atrocities in Syria and wanted to help them. The Islamic State was doing just that — he thought. (This was before it started beheading people.)
In adolescence, the empathy part of the brain is basically “throbbing,” says Temple-Raston. So if your teenager is in tears because you’re eating a burger and meat is murder, you shouldn’t be that surprised. During those formative years, a cause can become a young person’s world — even a cause that looks crazy from the outside.
Temple-Raston interviews parents of teens who have killed themselves. With social media, news of a teen death spreads like wildfire. Recently, some towns have suffered “suicide contagion,” with up to 16 such tragedies a year.
What can be done? In Britain, there’s a new app teens can tap when they’re at their lowest. “So if you are feeling sad, they have a bunch of kids who have felt the same way who’ll get on the line and talk to you.” The teens learn they’re not alone. (In America, there’s a confidential hotline, 800-273-8255.)
Of course, most teens will never shoot anyone or join a holy war. But it’s likely they’re a little high-strung and passionate about a cause you, the parent, are not passionate about. Bottom line: It’s probably not your parenting causing this rift; it’s their brains. And soon enough, they’ll be back to normal.
It just may not FEEL soon enough.