Adolescents facing 'powder keg' of issues - Gluckman

"Further episodes of tragic behaviours by young people" have sparked concern from the Prime Minister's chief science advisor, who says young people now face a "powder keg" of issues.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman this morning issued a briefing, which says "the solutions to the problem are much more complex than is generally appreciated".

He revealed the Prime Minster John Key has ordered "a major project" to assemble evidence about youth issues from both New Zealand and overseas, to find out what actions can be taken. A report would be released in the next few months.

Auckland teenager James Webster, 16, died after drinking a bottle of vodka on May 8.

The King College teenager's death has been followed by a further tragedy at the top Auckland school, with Year 11 pupil Michael Treffers, 15, dying yesterday.

James Webster's death has reignited public debate over school after-ball parties and parental responsibility for them.

Professor Gluckman said he wanted to put some of the issues in to a scientific perspective.

The age of sexual maturation had fallen dramatically from about 16 to 17 years of age 200 years ago to between 11½ and 12½ years on average now, Professor Gluckman said.

The five year fall in the age of puberty was matched by a similar, but less well documented, decline in the rate of maturation of boys.

"It has created an ever-widening gap between the biological transition to adolescence and other aspects of an individual's development," Professor Gluckman said.

"Consider, for example, that many children are well into puberty before they leave primary school and have completed it before they enter secondary school."

A young person's brain did not have the same level of understanding, abstract thinking, or higher executive functions that made impulse control, wisdom, and judgement possible. Recent studies suggested that the human brain was not fully mature until some time between 20 and 30 years of age.

"Importantly, those areas of the brain that are involved in impulse control and judgement are the very last areas of the brain to mature," Professor Gluckman said.

Society was also much more complex now.

"Now, radio, television, internet, cellphones, texting and Twitter all provide young people with the ability to form and maintain much more complex social networks," he said.

Although the increased use of technology had some advantages, there were also risks.

Along with earlier physical development and slower brain development, the new social context created the potential to "produce a powder keg" during adolescence.

"As a result, acting out behaviours in a number of domains, such as binge drinking, illicit drug use, unsafe sexual activity and criminal offending, are increasingly likely to occur," Professor Gluckman said.

While the law and society presumed biological and mental maturity happened at about the same time, this was clearly not the case.

"Urgent research is needed to understand what strategies might be best in terms of child-rearing, education, social welfare and justice to improve the passage of young people through this difficult period," Professor Gluckman said.

"The tragedies that arise from risky and inappropriate behaviour by young people have an enormous impact on families and on their communities.

"The solutions will require a much greater understanding of what drives brain maturation, of the impacts of societal pressures on that maturation, and of what factors in our social structure could be modified to ease the transition from child to adult."

Professor Gluckman said his report on what could be done about these issues would be presented within the next few months. But adolescence was a complex issue and there would be no "quick fixes."