When Walter Brooke uttered this memorable line to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, it was 1967. Brooke, as Mr. Maguire, was trying to impart wisdom to young Benjamin Braddock, telling him where the future lay. Audiences at the time were aware of the abilities of plastic, but would probably have been shocked to learn how prescient it really was. By 1976, plastic was the most-used material in the United States, and remains the most-used in the world today. There is no indication that this will be slowing down any time soon.
Because of the ubiquity of plastics, we all have a pre-determined sense of what they are, and when we hear a term like ‘plasticity’, it can seem odd. We think of plastics as mostly defined shapes – wagon wheels and Fresca bottles and inflatable reindeer and the like. Yet ‘plasticity’ is a term used to indicate the ability to be molded, to change, to adapt to fit a new container based on circumstance.
Dr. Andrea Howard is a developmental psychologist. An Associate Professor in the psychology department at Carleton University and the Director of the Pickering Centre for Research in Human Development at Carleton, she studies wellness during important developmental transitions like the transition to adulthood. She talks about plasticity a lot.
“A person at any time can be molded or changed in one way or another. Either by themselves, or by their environment or their genes or a combination thereof. It’s a term that caught on many years ago and we use it to describe potential. There’s really never a point in your lifespan where something different couldn’t happen. We talk often about people who start from a common place. Like two children who both had university-educated parents with similar incomes and similar childhood experiences, but who ended up in vastly different places.”
Many years ago indeed. The term was first used in the 1630s, usually in relation to art (sculpture, pottery, and so on). The term ‘plasticity’ does not come from ‘plastics’, and in fact predates it by several centuries. Rather, they share the same root word – ‘plasticus’ in Latin or ‘plastikos’ in Greek, meaning “capable of being molded into various forms”. It also forms the root for words like ‘plaster’ and ‘plasticine’. Dr. Howard says there are two periods in life when that plasticity is most prevalent – infancy and the teenage years.
“Developmental psychology has learned a lot about child development and the critical periods for capitalizing on that plasticity – on moving a child up or down in terms of their potential. Advances have helped us to see how critical the first three years – really, the first six years – are. Things like play-based kindergarten and play-based preschool are the result of that work. We don’t treat children like miniature adults any more because we understand they have different needs, and their ability to process and grow and thrive with information is very different than that of adults. Kindergarten in Ontario, for example, is a reflection of the science of child development. It’s certainly different from what kindergarten looked like when I was younger.”
In infancy, childhood, and adolescence an awful lot is happening in a short amount of time. That makes it of interest not only to psychologists but to parents, teachers, children themselves and the general public. But developmental psychology is a field of study that deals with the entire course of life.
“I think people have the mistaken impression that developmental psychology is about childhood and child psychology, and that’s not entirely true. All of our theoretical foundations are about understanding change across the lifespan, and a lot of the earliest work in developmental psychology came from aging. Many of the most foundational scholars studied development in the later part of life, and cognitive aging. A lot of very prominent developmental psychologists today still focus on that part of the lifespan.”
When I was a university student, I lived with two roommates, Sang and Kent. We threw a Super Bowl party one year, and my dad attended. I remember there being one play where neither team could corral a fumble, and the ball eventually ended up going out of bounds. My dad turned to me and said “you’d think they could just pick up the damn ball!” That, for me, was the moment I felt like I had entered adulthood. Dad was talking to me like a peer – casual swearing! Directed at me! I’m a grown-up! This transition to adulthood is what Dr. Howard studies, and she says it looks different for different people.
“Reaching adulthood is not something that happens in a short period of time. Children start approaching adulthood from the moment they’re born, but there are a lot of things happening in rapid succession as adolescents are reaching the end of high school, learning to drive at 16, becoming legal adults at 18. From the late teens to the late 20s is what most people would consider the transition to adulthood phase, but it’s very fluid and very individualized. Some people are going to feel that they have reached adulthood at an earlier age than others when they’ve taken on conventional roles like full time employment, becoming the head of a household, and paying their own bills.
There are plenty of people in their 60s and 70s who say ‘you know, I don’t really feel like an adult’. Or they feel like in some ways they are but other ways they’re not. There are no formal rules as to when someone ‘becomes’ an adult. We do have legal definitions of adulthood, and if you’re 19 you’re a legal adult and you have legal rights. But developmentally we’re more interested in how people perceive themselves and perceive others in terms of adulthood.
Over the past 30 years, people in Western countries – countries with more resources – have started to care more about less tangible indicators of adulthood. Like the ability to take care of yourself broadly, and taking responsibility for your actions, or individuating yourself from your parents in an interpersonal relationship. Whereas conventional markers have always been marriage, parenthood, full time employment, financial independence, that sort of thing. But those things matter a lot less, and plenty of people who have not necessarily met all those role transitions feel completely like adults. For a long time we’ve been seeing that people care more about intangible characteristics in defining whether you’ve crossed a transition to adulthood.”
The teenage years, as one approaches becoming an adult – however one might define that for oneself – are a key part of development. Once again, this is because it is a time with a very high degree of plasticity. Dr. Howard says that the brain development of teenagers has been a very important part of the research in the past several decades.
“One of the most important contributions of developmental psychology has to do with how we think about teenagers, and how much they need to be treated as children versus adults. A lot of that is coming from our understanding of brain development from age 10-25. Developmental neuropsychology has allowed us to understand that the brain continues to change in really meaningful ways, and that adolescence in particular is a period of extremely high activity and neurological change. It’s similar to infancy in terms of how much activity is happening. Over the years that’s changed how we think about adolescent decision-making and risk-taking and good versus poor judgement in high intensity situations. We know pretty well that a 16-year-old is just as good as a 30-year-old at reasoning during a calm, cold-cognition situation – a situation that doesn’t require rapid decision-making under pressure. Like voting, for example. But the 16-year-old is not so good at stuff like deciding whether to run a red light. Teenagers who are with friends tend to make riskier behavioural decisions. That’s something that has helped society decide how to deal with teenagers in decision-making and legal situations.”
So if 16-year-olds are just as capable as older adults in making a decision like who to vote for, how come they can’t vote? Dr. Howard reiterates.
“At one point 18-year-olds couldn’t vote either, but then they needed more people to fight in wars so they lowered the voting age. There’s no developmental reason not to allow a 16-year-old to vote. Whether our country would choose to go that route has more to do with whether adults are comfortable ceding some control of decision-making to younger people. The science of adolescent development suggests that a 16-year-old should be able to make as informed a decision as an older adult.”
And yet, 16-year-olds can drive. Those of us who have, at one time or another, been (or had) teenage boys might remember the incredibly high insurance premiums we had to pay – much higher than teenage girls, and astronomically higher than our parents or grandparents. I remember when Ontario instituted their ‘graduated licensing’ program – I was just a bit too young to have been exempt, and it added an extra step (and two extra years) to the process of obtaining a full driver’s license. That added to the expense, but not nearly as much as that insurance did. Dr. Howard says there’s a good reason for this.
“The reason your car insurance was so expensive when you were a 17-year-old boy is not because developmental psychologists told the insurers it needed to be that way, but because the insurance companies were recognizing that teenagers had way more collisions. And the reason that was happening is because of developmental differences. The graduated licensing program goes a long way toward moving novice drivers to being safer drivers.”
In addition to changing our attitudes about how we approach children in infancy, and teenagers during adolescence, a major shift in developmental psychology over the past three decades has been toward longitudinal studies. Hugely influential pioneers in the field once focused on the idea that there was a lot of universality in human development. Jean Piaget, for example, came up with the famous ‘stages’ theory, which divided human lifespans into four distinct developmental stages. Today, Dr. Howard says we see things a little differently.
“At one time questions focused on the idea that children achieve a stage and then can’t regress backward, and that everyone is pretty uniform at each stage of development. Now we know that’s a bit too fixed of a way of looking at things. The field has moved on from stage theories of development. In terms of how you would design a study, I think the biggest change has been moving from single-time-point surveys and experiments to collecting data over a long period of time (longitudinal data). There has always been longitudinal data, but it has grown to become a much bigger part of developmental psychology than it was in say the 90s. When you do a study now, you’re almost expected to collect data over months, years, or even decades.”
We’re starting to see some more prominent longitudinal studies come about as a result of COVID. Most of us have been asked to participate in one survey or another in regard to our mental health over the past two years, our daily habits, and our perception of the pandemic at different points along the timeline. Dr. Howard is no exception, although with one of her studies she says COVID ended up being more of a really interesting asterisk at the end than a central focal point.
“In 2019 we collected data from undergraduates at Carleton, 16-to-19-year-olds in their first year. They were straight out of high school and entering the transition to university, and we believe there’s an important opportunity for change with meaningful transitions like that. We collected data from them four times over the course of the first academic year, to see if the indicators of wellness we were measuring were moving around from month to month. Things like depression and anxiety tend to get worse from the beginning of the semester to the end, which we’ve seen over and over again. What was really valuable for us in collecting that data was that we ended up gathering some data right around the time we started having some lockdowns for COVID at the end of the academic year. Having several time points means that I have a data set to look at that can tell me how people in this particular population were doing up to and then during the transition to pandemic living. It allows us to see not only how groups of people in general are changing over time, but how individuals themselves change relative to their own baselines over time.”
COVID has of course been the #1 topic of discussion for all of us over the past two years, but for the past decade or so it has been social media. LinkedIn launched in 2003, followed quickly by MySpace. Twitter went online in 2006, and in 2008 Facebook overtook MySpace to become the dominant site. Today, we also have Pinterest (2010), Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), TikTok (2017), the list goes on and the landscape is endless. This is a big topic in Dr. Howard’s area, the transition to adulthood.
“There’s a lot of back-and-forth over the extent to which social media use is problematic for young peoples’ mental health and general well-being. Developmental psychologists are trying to remind the world that the things that are on your phone aren’t static activities you do, they’re contexts in which you live your life. When children go to school they experience a whole environment with people around them that could be influencing them, and they are also influencing the environment and the other people by their presence. Something like an Instagram platform is a developmental context that people are growing up in, which is a new thing compared to even a decade ago. So approaching social media use from a developmental perspective will help us understand not just whether being on the platform is good or bad for you, but what kinds of experiences you’re having on that platform that might be plastic – pushing you forward in a positive way or creating risk and negative experiences.”
In late 2021, a study conducted by Facebook themselves made huge international news. The major headline was that Facebook knew that Instagram (which they own) is having a profound negative effect on the body image of young girls. Adding to the sensational nature of the story is that the study was exposed by a whistleblower, and it certainly appeared as though Facebook had tried to bury it. But Dr. Howard says developmental psychologists aren’t buying the sensational headlines, the results of the study, or even the validity of the study itself.
“We had a real problem with that study, because it’s not well done. Facebook was accused of burying that research, but it was extremely low-quality work and doesn’t at all show that Instagram is bad for teenage girls. But because it was buried, and there was a whistleblower, it has a lot of visibility right now. In the public, parents and politicians often voice concerns that social media is damaging our teens. From a developmental perspective, that’s the wrong question to ask. Teenagers are on social media, as are adults and some children. So what is happening in those environments that’s good and bad? What is happening that improves peoples’ developmental potential, and what hinders it? The whistleblower study gathered young people who had completed some questions about body image and were exhibiting negative body image, and asked them how big a problem do you think Instagram has been for your body image? Priming your participants by saying ‘this is one of the reasons you’re having bad body image, how bad of a reason is it?’ is not a great way to get a response that tells us anything about the platform. But more than that, it was something like 70% of those girls, even after being primed, said it was either essentially not a problem, or that it helped them. But the focus was on the 30% or so who said that being on Instagram made them feel worse about themselves and that became the big headline. So, bad study design, wrong way to ask the question, and the results were interpreted poorly. Developmental psychologists would suggest approaching this issue very differently.”
Social media certainly has its ups and downs, and has sparked positive development as well as the more-publicized negative effects. Dr. Howard says the same can be said of virtually every domain studied by developmental psychologists.
“What brings people together under the banner of developmental psychology is an adherence to a theoretical framework about how we view the lifespan. Change is continuous and ongoing across the lifespan. There is always some plasticity and malleability in developmental experience and people can always change. There is potential for positive or negative growth at any time. What modulates your experience is what’s going on in your environment. We take a really broad theoretical perspective on how people progress across their lifespan, so that can bring together people who study infancy from that perspective and also those who study aging and dementia at the end of life.”
There is always plasticity. And it will always be called plasticity, even if our modern sensibilities suggest a different name might evoke a more apt visualization of how it works. That said, calling it ‘sillyputtyicity’ might be too…silly.