Search Cornell

Engaging Cornell students to study adolescent sexual health in the digital age

(0) Comments  |   Tags: ACT for Youth,   adolescence,   CRPSIR,   Jane Powers,   Janis Whitlock,   sexual health,   students,  

Janis Whitlock and Jane Powers

Janis Whitlock and Jane Powers

BCTR researchers Janis Whitlock (director, Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery) and Jane Powers (director, ACT for Youth) have joined forces to study how technology impacts teen sexual behavior. Their project Adolescent Sexual Health in the Digital Age explores youth and “technology-mediated sexual activity” (TMSA): how young people engage in sexually explicit activities through digital technologies, such as online pornography, sexting, and hook up apps. The work is supported by a recently-awarded Hatch grant.

As a starting point, Whitlock and Powers surveyed youth service providers, sex educators, and parents to assess their overall level of awareness and concern about TMSA, and to capture what these individuals have been observing among the youth with whom they interact.

To learn directly from young people themselves, the researchers enlisted the help of undergraduates. In collaboration with Professor Kelly Musick and students in her Research Design, Practice and Policy class (PAM 3120) Whitlock and Powers launched a semester-long project to develop a survey that could be used to explore TMSA among college students. Class members first participated in focus groups led by members of the ACT for Youth evaluation team, research assistants in the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery lab, and Callie Silver (HD ’16), a Cooperative Extension intern and core research assistant for the project. The focus groups prompted students to discuss how they think their peers navigate sex in this new digital landscape. The students then learned how to code the focus group transcripts and generate themes to develop a college survey. Once the survey was developed, students conducted a pilot study, generating approximately 400 responses. Finally, the class presented their findings as well as their recommendations for revisions to the survey.

In this mutually rewarding project, students learned about research methods through a real- world project, and in turn their work provided BCTR researchers with essential information that will be incorporated into an NIH proposal to further examine this understudied, but important, topic.

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: ACT for Youth    adolescence    CRPSIR    Jane Powers    Janis Whitlock    sexual health    students   

2016 Doris Lecture: Judi Smetana, Wednesday, April 20, 2016

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   John Doris Memorial Lecture,   parenting,  

Adolescent-Parent Relationships: Developmental Processes and Cultural Variations
Judi Smetana, University of Rochester

Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Nevin Welcome Center, The Plantations

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: adolescence    John Doris Memorial Lecture    parenting   

Talks at Twelve: Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Wednesday, September 10, 2014

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   BCTR Talks at Twelve,   health,   youth,  

More Body Projects
Joan Jacobs Brumberg, Cornell University

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
12:00PM - 1:30PM
Beebe Hall, 2nd floor conference room

This illustrated talk is a reprise of a lecture delivered at Cornell’s June 2014 reunion. Professor Brumberg will discuss the ways in which the adolescent female body has been shaped by American culture, focusing on how body projects and body modification have changed over the past 20 years since the publication of her award-winning book The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls.


Joan Jacobs Brumberg, a social and cultural historian, is a faculty fellow at the Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. As Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and a professor in the College of Human Ecology, she taught courses for over twenty years on the history of American childhood, American women and girls, and the history of medicine. She has written three books on adolescents: Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls, and Kansas Charley: The Boy Murderer. In addition to book awards, she has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. She is a fellow of the Society of American Historians.

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: adolescence    BCTR Talks at Twelve    health    youth   

BCTR at the Society for Research on Adolescence meeting

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   conference,   Janis Whitlock,   Mary Agnes Hamilton,   presentation,   Stephen Hamilton,  


Stephen Hamilton and Mary Agnes Hamilton

The 15th Biannual Meeting of the Society for Research on Adolescence was held in Austin, TX on March 20, 2014. The 2014 conference theme of Social Justice was addressed by faculty, staff, and students from the BCTR's Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and RecoveryCornell Youth in Society, and The Role of Grandparents in the Lives of Adolescent Grandchildren.

  • Stephen Hamilton participated in the roundtable discussion, Improving the uses of evidence in working with young people: International perspectives on challenges and opportunities.
  • Stephen Hamilton and  Mary Agnes Hamilton presented a paper, When is a youth program leader a mentor?
  • Kimberly Kopko presented the paper A Dyadic Analysis of Parenting Behaviors and Relationship Quality Among Adolescent Grandchildren and Custodial Grandparents, which was co-authored with Megan L. Dolbin-MacNab and Rachel Dunifon
  • Kemar Prussien, a junior Psychology major and BCTR research assistant, presented a poster co-authored with Janis Whitlock: Parent-Child Agreement in Understanding the What and Why of Child Non-Suicidal Self-Injury.
  • Janis Whitlock and Deinera Exner-Cortens were co-chairs for the media and communications sub-committee, which hosted a pre-conference, Translating Research Evidence to Policy and Practice.
  • Additionally, BCTR faculty affiliates Jane Mendle and Tony Burrow both gave presentations at the conference.

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: adolescence    conference    Janis Whitlock    Mary Agnes Hamilton    presentation    Stephen Hamilton   

ACT focus group studies connect policy makers with youth voices

(0) Comments  |   Tags: ACT for Youth,   adolescence,   focus group,   Research in Translation,   sexual health,  

Since its inception in 2000, the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence (COE) has sought to enhance efforts to promote the health and well-being of adolescents. As an intermediary funded by the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), the COE aims to connect research to practice by applying knowledge about what works in prevention and youth development in communities across the state. But the sharing of information is not a one-way street: the COE also collects wisdom and data from the field, which in turn is used to inform policy and practice.

One illustration of this process is the COE's recent youth focus group study. The COE has often been called upon by the NYSDOH to conduct focus groups on topics of interest in adolescent health, specifically so policy makers and decision makers can hear directly from youth in New York State (NYS). The focus group findings have been incorporated into funding announcements and media campaigns, and used to develop new sexual health initiatives. Recently, the COE partnered with grantees who are working in the field of teen pregnancy prevention to conduct focus groups with youth in order to understand how adolescents think about “family planning,” as well as identify barriers to their accessing reproductive health services. This study was driven by the fact that while significant numbers of adolescents are sexually active, there has been a decline in adolescent use of publicly-funded family planning services, a fact that has been observed nationally as well as in NYS. Major findings from this focus group study support those documented in national studies:

  1. teens want to prevent pregnancy, but they have misconceptions about and negative views of birth control methods; and
  2. utilization of family planning services can be improved by attending to several factors including teen perceptions of stigma, discomfort, and lack of privacy.

These findings are outlined in a recent COE publication, Youth and Family Planning: Findings from a Focus Group Study, which is part of the Research fACTs and Findings series. In addition, the COE has also presented findings to practitioners who work in the area of teen pregnancy prevention, adolescent sexual health, and reproductive health services. By connecting these results directly with those working in the field, the COE is able to reach a wide audience of practitioners, policy makers, and educators who can use the information to inform practice.

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: ACT for Youth    adolescence    focus group    Research in Translation    sexual health   

Youth smoking prevention works

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   Evidence-Based Living,   health,   smoking,  

"Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, causing about 500,000 deaths per year and driving up costs in the U.S. health care system."

Read the rest of this post on the Evidence-Based Living blog:

Youth smoking prevention works

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: adolescence    Evidence-Based Living    health    smoking   

Talks at Twelve: Barry Burkhart

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   BCTR Talks at Twelve,   video,  

An Outline of an Empirically Oriented Assessment and Treatment Program for Adolescent Sex Offenders
April 18, 2013

Barry Burkhart
Psychology Department, Auburn University

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: adolescence    BCTR Talks at Twelve    video   

Life and the Adolescent Brain

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   Barbara Ganzel,   neurology,   translational neuroscience,  

Reflection on our own adolescent years may include memories of excitingly risky activities or profound emotional vulnerability, or both. Risk and vulnerability are at the heart of two critical themes in research on adolescence. Adolescence is a period of heightened risk-taking behavior (Steinberg, 2008) and it is also the peak developmental period for the onset of psychological disturbance (Paus, Keshavan, & Giedd, 2008). However, a third theme in research on adolescence is at odds with these stereotypes of teenage emotional chaos and out-of-control behavior. This third theme highlights youth resilience and the ability to adapt and thrive in the expanding social world of the teenager (Crone & Dahl, 2012). Neuroscience unites these three themes by shedding light on the peculiarities of the adolescent brain and their impact on behavior. To understand adolescent behavior, it is helpful to look at what is happening in the adolescent brain – and this is a story that begins much earlier in life.

Illustration of synapses. credit: Wellcome Images

In the developing human brain, there is a massive early overgrowth in the number of connections or synapses between neurons (thus allowing a high degree of malleability in the brains of the very young). This early overabundance of synapses is countered by two major bouts of synaptic pruning, the first of which occurs in early childhood (around age three) and the second of which occurs during adolescence. Pruning drives a 50 to 55% decrease in the number of synapses across the entire cortex between late childhood and early adulthood. This cortical thinning is a marker of brain maturation and is associated with more adult-like cognitive abilities.

During pruning, any neural connections that have not been consistently used are eliminated. Thus, when we were adolescents, pruning served to streamline the efficiency of networks of neurons that we used most often. Our brains were sculpted to fit our own particular environment (a real life example of “you are what you do”). At the same time, increasing thickness and density of fatty white matter (myelin) served to insulate the “wiring” between neurons. This effectively boosted transmission power across the long connections in the brain that underlie the extended neural networks responsible for complex thought and behavior. Thus, during adolescence and young adulthood, pruning and myelination worked together to establish and strengthen the higher-order neural networks that we use for planning and regulating what we do.

credit: Ryan Mercer

Different brain areas develop at different rates and the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is among the last brain regions to mature. This is not surprising, since it is the most interconnected area of the brain. The PFC is referred to as the ‘C.E.O’ of the brain since it is involved in executive functioning. These executive functions include planning, decision making, and direction of working memory, i.e., the ongoing thought processes that allow us to complete tasks and plan for the future. The PFC is capable of promoting such complex human thought because of its connections with other members of the brain community. Within the adolescent PFC, pruning and myelination are creating big improvements in the fine-tuning of local connections, as well as profoundly strengthening its long-distance communications with the rest of the brain. These long-distance connections form the integrative neural networks responsible for higher level processing such as self-perception and goal-directed behavior, and so they are crucial to making rational decisions and regulating emotional drives. These “smart circuits” finish their development last because they are continuously refined and polished across adolescence and young adulthood. This is a big factor in the unique way that adolescents process their experiences and navigate their environment.

credit: Jeremy Eades

First, there may be a lag in the connections between the PFC and those regions of the brain devoted to motivated, reward-seeking behavior. A substance in the brain called dopamine is the primary chemical signaler in this network. During adolescence, there are excessive levels of dopamine in these regions, leading to increased activation of these reward systems. In turn, adolescents demonstrate elevated exploration and reward-seeking behavior. There is neuroimaging evidence that the adolescent PFC is not yet able to effectively inhibit this increased reward-seeking. These ‘rewards’ that an adolescent is after could be anything from drugs and alcohol to social acceptance. In the pursuit of the positive feelings driven by this circuitry, teens may drink, do drugs, or have unprotected sex.

The PFC has strong connections to brain regions that underlie emotion processing. These are areas of the brain that direct our survival-related behaviors (sometimes called “the four F’s” – feeding, fight, flight, and sex). These circuits also underlie the formation of social bonds, which have been key in our evolutionary history of overcoming hardships through group cooperation. These brain regions initiate pleasant emotional states of desire, as well as negative feelings when we feel fearful, ashamed, or rejected. When these ‘higher order’ social networks include a mature PFC, they allow us to behave effectively in social situations. The PFC guides our attempts to impress and comfort others, to empathize, and to having deeply meaningful exchanges with our fellow man about what we experience.

Neuroimaging technology allows scientists to measure activity within the neural circuits that underlie these behaviors. In one study, adolescents saw pictures of emotional images, such as the disapproving or angry face of a peer, while their brains were being imaged in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. Those adolescents who were less resistant to peer pressure showed evidence of weak connections between their prefrontal cortex and their reward areas, and those who were more socially resistant showed stronger, more mature connections between these areas. The authors of the study concluded that socially resistant adolescents were better able to recruit their PFC to help them regulate their emotions when faced with negative social information. It was suggested that this, in turn, may allow these young people to resist social pressure to engage in risky behavior (Grosbras et al., 2007).

credit: Joseph Vasquez

Adolescents are more attuned to how others respond to them, picking up on subtleties of social exchanges and attributing meaning to them. They tend to be highly sociable and sensitive to acceptance and rejection from peers -- more so than children or adults. This social intensity may be due, in part, to higher adolescent levels of another chemical signaler, oxytocin, a hormone that enhances social emotions in mammals. A mature PFC is more able to modulate social highs and lows associated with social acceptance and social rejection. The still-developing adolescent PFC is less able to do so, so that a social threat is more likely to initiate the neural and hormonal cascades and negative feelings that we experience as stress. For example, an adolescent girl may angst over the details of exchanges with boys. Another teen’s self-esteem may be decimated by being picked last in gym class. Happily, this increased sensitivity to the social world may also allow social support to have an elevated beneficial effect for teens experiencing stress. For example, research on social buffering investigates how the presence of supporting and comforting others can help to decrease the intensity of the stress response and its associated negative feelings. These studies find that social buffering effects are amplified during adolescence, so that teens more readily absorb the positive effects of social support in the face of stress (Buwalda, Geerdink, Vidal, & Koolhaas, 2011). This finding suggests that interventions that enhance healthy social buffering may be particularly helpful for our stressed teens.

Adolescent brain development provides some insight into why adolescents take more risks, have increased odds of experiencing psychological distress, and rely heavily on peer approval. It has been argued, though, that study of the adolescent brain has done more to reveal that this developmental period is ripe with opportunity. Although the adolescent PFC is less efficient in inhibiting emotionally-driven impulses, a new line of research suggests that this very lack of maturity allows greater cognitive and social flexibility (Crone & Dahl, 2012). Not only is the adolescent brain is still changing and adapting to environments, it is able to more quickly switch attention to novel social features of the environment. This gives adolescents an advantage in navigating their complex social worlds, and in creatively pursuing new friendships and connections. Thus, neuroscience tells us that the adolescent brain is not merely immature, but rather it is perfectly suited to foster exploration of new environments, soak up the benefits of social closeness, and mold future adult capabilities.


Dr. Barbara Ganzel, Director, Laboratory for Lifespan Affective Neuroscience



Sarah Moore, graduate student, Human Development






Buwalda, B., Geerdink, M., Vidal, J., & Koolhaas, J.M. (2011). Social behavior and social stress in adolescence. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(8), 1713-1721.

Crone, E. A., & Dahl, R. E. (2012) Understanding adolescence as a period of social-affective engagement and goal flexibility. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 13(9), 636-650.

Grosbras, M., Jansen, M., Leonard, G., McIntosh, A., Osswald, K., Poulsen, C., & Paus, T. (2007). Neural mechanisms of resistance to peer influence in early adolescence. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(30), 8040-8045.

Paus, T., Keshavan, M., & Giedd, J. N. (2008). Why do many psychiatric disorders emerge during adolescence? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(12), 947-957.

Steinberg, L. (2008). A social neuroscience perspective on adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 78-106.

BCTR Resources on adolescent neurology

Video of talks on the adolescent brain from the 2011 Bronfenbrenner Conference, The Neuroscience of Risky Decision Making, are available here. They include:

  • Eveline Crone, Adolescent Brain Development: A Window of Opportunity for Learning and Social Cognition
  • Jay Giedd, The Adolescent Brain: New Views from Neuroimaging
  • Beatriz Luna, Adolescent Risk Taking: Immaturities in Cognitive Control and Reward Processing

Also see the recent book The Adolescent Brain co-edited by BCTR faculty affiliate Valerie Reyna and published by the American Psychological Association.

(1) Comment.  |   Tags: adolescence    Barbara Ganzel    neurology    translational neuroscience   

Boston Globe quotes Exner-Cortens on teen dating violence

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   Deinera Exner-Cortens,   media mention,   violence,  

An April 1 article in the Boston Globe outlines the need for better conversations with teens about dating violence. As the author points out, most parents are knowledgeable about and talk to their children about drinking, drugs, and sex, but dating violence is not yet on the list of essential conversations.

The Globe contacted Deinera Exner-Cortens for comment as her results from her research on teen dating violence were recently published in the journal Pediatrics as Longitudinal Associations Between Teen Dating Violence Victimization and Adverse Health Outcomes.

Exner-Cortens is quoted in the Globe article, saying,

A teenager’s first romantic relationship plays a critical role in helping an adolescent develop a sense of who he or she is — personally and sexually…If a teen’s first intimate relationship is abusive, it may skew what his or her view of what a healthy relationship looks like.

When teen dating turns dangerous - Boston Globe

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: adolescence    Deinera Exner-Cortens    media mention    violence   

Talks at Twelve: Ann Meier, Friday, August 24, 2012

(0) Comments  |   Tags: adolescence,   BCTR Talks at Twelve,   sexual health,  

Significant Others, Sex Norms, and Adolescent Well-Being
Ann Meier, Sociology, University of Minnesota

Friday, August 24, 2012
Beebe Hall - 2nd floor conference room

Using data from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Ann Meier and colleagues Eric Grodsky and Bill McCarthy investigate the microlevel origins of adolescent sex norms. They focus on stated norms (attitudes), as well as enacted norms (behaviors) and the influence of people from four primary groups: parents, friends, classmates, and schoolmates. Dr. Meier will talk about how these four groups vary in their levels of attachment, social proximity, and exposure to adolescents. Their findings reveal that parents, friends, and schoolmates make distinctive contributions to adolescent sex norm development, whereas classmates tend not to have unique influence. In almost all cases, schoolmates’ contributions to adolescents’ sex norms are at least twice the size of those of friends and classmates. Further, parental influence is consistently and significantly associated with both stated and enacted norms. Overall, they find that the attitudes and the actions of those with whom adolescents are close to, as well as those who are more distant contribute to teenagers’ views about sexual intercourse and their decisions to have sex. It is these normative contexts, they suggest, that shape the effects of sex on adolescent well-being.

Ann Meier is Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota and an affiliate of the Minnesota Population Center. Her work on adolescent romantic and sexual relationships has appeared in the American Journal of Sociology, Social Forces, and the Sociological Quarterly among other journals. This work was funded by a Mentored Research Scientist Development Award (K01) on Social Development into Adulthood and with an ongoing research grant (R01) on Adolescent Sex, Well-Being, and Normative Contexts. In addition, current collaborative work with Kelly Musick (Cornell) on family environments and adolescent well-being appears in Social Science Research, Journal of Marriage and Family, and in the edited volume Early Adulthood in a Family Context (Springer). Finally, Meier’s work on gender and sexuality differences in adolescent and young adults’ relationship values appears in Journal of Marriage and Family and Contexts.

Lunch will be served. This talk is open to all.

Co-sponsored by the Cornell Population Center.

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: adolescence    BCTR Talks at Twelve    sexual health