My wife is an adolescent medicine doctor, meaning she is a pediatrician that specializes in teenagers. A key idea she has always emphasized is that the adolescent brain is not fully developed—particularly when it comes to executive function.
This means the teenage brain has yet to develop the neurons or brain tissue that regulate impulse control and tell them things like, “This isn’t a good idea.” This lack of brain development helps explain why teenagers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and why, in their minds, there is a distinct gap between short-term behaviors and their long-term consequences. Indeed, a scientific and biological explanation exists as to why teenagers are supposed to be stupid.
With this in mind, consider two recent cases of utter insanity in the news.
The first case involves a former Arizona high school student by the name of Hunter Osborn who was arrested and taken to jail after being charged with 69 counts of indecent exposure and one count of supplying detrimental materials to minors.
The latter charge is a felony.
So what did Mr. Osborn do? He exposed himself in a yearbook photo of the school’s football team. Mr. Osborn admitted to doing what he did after taking a dare. Most people who saw the photo didn’t even notice the indiscretion. Yet, a parent did notice and then notified Red Mountain High School. The school then called the police.
It certainly seems logical for Mr. Osborn’s parents and Red Mountain High School to take some form of disciplinary action against him since what he did was stupid. At the end of the day, even if he does suffer from “teenage brain,” this does not dismiss the fact that he should be held accountable for his actions. That accountability can take many simple forms that do not involve creating a criminal record for an 18 year old. He may atone for his wrongs with a sacrifice that matches the gravity of his sin. For instance, he could perform community service. He could be sentenced to clean the school for weeks. He could be required to do extra coursework. But considering that Mr. Osborn did not intentionally cause any irrevocable harm to any person, he certainly does not belong in jail. His infraction was so unnoticeable that the photographer and the school didn’t even notice his exposure until someone later pointed it out. In the end, we’re treating a teenager like a dangerous adult criminal while acting as though teenagers aren’t supposed to be stupid—but they are.
Does any reasonable adult think that putting Mr. Osborn in jail for a stupid teenage mistake will actually serve him better in the long run and transform him into a productive adult? If one thinks that is the case, then we should, by that logic, turn high schools into jails. Why? Because, according to The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, The Pew Internet & American Life Project and the Cox Communications Teen Online & Wireless Safety Survey, one out of five teens admits to having sent or posted nude or semi-nude photos or videos of themselves. Social proof does not condone foolish behavior but invites the authorities to consider that locking up teens (which inhibits value creation) may not be the best approach to stemming such a pervasive problem. On the other hand, the alternative¾those teens being in school—does create value.
The second case of insanity involves Levar Allen, a 17-year-old Louisiana high school student. A 16-year-old girl initiated and texted Mr. Allen nude pictures of herself. Mr. Allen reciprocated. The police then charged him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor and possession of child pornography.
Because the girl is younger than 17, she was also charged with sexting, but as a misdemeanor. Because Mr. Allen is 17, he was charged with a felony.
Without even getting into the issue of race, Mr. Allen’s case is the more absurd for one reason: in Louisiana, sexting is criminal while actual sex isn’t. The age of sexual consent in Louisiana is 17, and those younger than 17 can consent if their age is within two years of their partner. This means Mr. Allen (17 years old) could have legally had sex with his 16-year-old sexting partner, yet sexting between the these same two people is illegal according to Louisiana state law. Essentially, Louisiana is exposing itself for the sheer absurdity of its laws. You don’t even have to agree with the state’s laws to appreciate that they defy common sense. Here, pictures that are suggestive of an act are deemed more offensive than the act itself.
In these cases, the laws against child pornography are valid, reasonable, and intended to protect the vulnerable. Yet when such laws are applied recklessly without common sense and without a regard for the people that they are intended to protect, the rule of law is thereby transformed from a shield into a weapon.
The adolescent brain is underdeveloped. We know this. So, we know teenagers are supposed to be stupid. The stupid application of valid laws, however, does not yield intelligible results.
When I was a teenager, I was stupid. Now, I believe I have grown into a well-adjusted adult. Looking back, it is clear that criminalizing my teenage stupidity would have done more harm than good.
So can’t we all stop being so hypersensitive for one moment and simply embrace the fact that teenagers are supposed to be stupid and that, generally speaking, the ultimate cure for that isn’t jail time—it’s just time.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal