Harnessing Your Kid’s Defiance “For Their Own Good”

Among the more common and conspicuous behavioral changes beginning in adolescence and staying on to young adulthood is the emergence or intensifying of a defiant streak. And modern parenting trends suggest that we have begun to figure out that butting heads directly with this natural sense of rebellion, or worse, attempting to dictate it into submission with draconian disciplines, is largely a fool’s errand.

Now researchers reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have potentially game-changing insights to offer regarding how we may interact with, and in some cases harness, defiance in adolescents and young adults.

The study found that teenagers make wiser choices when they perceive healthy behavior as an act of defiance. Educators are learning that young people seem to often be more sensitive than adults to notions of social justice, autonomy and a sense of mission, at the same time that researchers are testing the effectiveness of framing good habits as acts of defiance. The results are promising.

Cultivating rebellion
The researchers randomly assigned just under 500 eighth graders to either read an ordinary health-class article—about the way the body processes food and with recommendations to consume a low fat and sugar diet, with colorful pictures of vegetables—or to read an exposé on the cynical manufacturing and marketing practices of some food companies. Specifically, the reading material pointed out how food manufacturers purposely reformulate ingredients not for health but for addictiveness, as well as how they deploy deceitful labeling strategies to make their foods appear healthy by skirting around labeling laws and regulatory practices.

Notably, the second group heard how food marketing executives successfully deceived adult authority figures. They were encouraged to view avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against the food industry’s control.

The next day, the students were allowed to pick snacks in an unrelated class as part of a long-planned celebration; teenagers who had read the exposé article were 11% less likely to choose at least one unhealthy snack (such as cookies, chips or cheese puffs) in favor of fruit, baby carrots or trail mix, and 7% more likely to choose water over cola or sugary punch.

These percentages may not seem dramatic, but in the estimation of the study authors, if the students sustained such subtle changes it would translate to the loss of about a pound of body fat every six to eight weeks.

Is, as The New York Times asks in their reportage of this study, teenage rebellion a potential asset to be cultivated rather than a threat to be quashed?

A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine offers additional evidence. In it, researchers looked at an anti-smoking campaign known as “truth.” One memorable spot from the early aughts featured a group of young people that piled up 1,200 body bags outside the headquarters of a tobacco company, the number derived from deaths attributed to smoking each day in America. A youth shouts into a megaphone up at a tobacco executive peering down nervously from his office window. Smoking is thus framed as an act of corporate submission rather than rebelliousness. The study estimated that the broader campaign prevented 450,000 young people from starting to smoke from 2000 to 2004.

Teens also seem to possess abundant focus and self-discipline when properly motivated. In another study, students who had been asked to reflect on the larger purpose of their learning were more likely to stick with solving tough math problems and resist watching online content or playing video games. Their self-control increased when they connected math to a larger cause.

Needless to say, admonishments from generations past such as “it’s for your own good” go nowhere and only backfire. It appears to be time to stop criticizing and start tapping into teen defiance. Envision a world, as the leading proponents of this line of thinking do, in which each soda commercial provides a “booster shot of indignation rather than temptation.” The junk food industry would be in effect paying to undermine their own unhealthful products.

No conspiracy theories needed
Recent evidence makes clear that it won’t be hard to prove to teenagers that there is indeed a cynical and deceitful side to the food industry. The cache of historical documents released in September showing that the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and heart disease is the latest example.

The internal sugar industry documents were discovered by a researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, and published in JAMA Internal Medicine. They strongly suggest that five decades of research on sugar, saturated fat and heart disease may have been largely shaped by the sugar industry.

It’s important to avoid unintended consequences here, however. Since the sugar industry actively looked to scapegoat saturated fat as the heart disease culprit, we must be careful not to accidentally steer young people toward saturated fat excess as an act of rebellion.

In addition to the scandal surrounding the cynically named and now defunct Global Energy Balance Network (see Running & FitNews July/Aug 2015, “A Coke Fueled Controversy”), in October it was revealed that Coca-Cola and Pepsi gave millions of dollars to, and then lobbied against, attempts to improve the American diet. Specifically, the beverage giants gave generously to almost 100 prominent health groups while simultaneously spending millions to defeat public health legislation that would reduce soda intake.

The findings were published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, and document the beverage industry’s prolonged financial outreach to the health community to actually silence criticism of their products’ impact on public health and gain allies in the fight against soda regulations.

The silver lining here is that reshaping attitudes toward doing the right thing has been made easier in an information age in which deceitful practices have a way of coming to light, allowing teens to readily perceive a clear moral choice that was made obvious in spite of, rather than because of, the powers that be.

The New York Times, Sep. 12, 2016, “Can Teenage Defiance Be Manipulated for Good?” by Amanda Ripley, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/13/upshot/can-teenage-defiance-be-manipulated-for-good.html

JAMA Internal Medicine, Sep. 12, 2016, Special Communication, Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents, http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2548255

American Journal of Preventive Medicine,Oct.  2016, Sponsorship of National Health Organizations by Two Major Soda Companies, http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(16)30331-2/fulltext

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