Researchers reset puberty discussion around modern research

Puberty is a universal yet highly individualized process. For many, it happens in slow and steady stages; for others, it goes quickly and dramatically. For all, it is a period of time to endure and get past.

But this life stage, recognized as awkward and uncomfortable, is also an incredibly important and vivid life transition – a transformation in physical growth and cognitive development that can produce long-lasting impacts. And for researchers, it is a crucial avenue for understanding human development, both individually and collectively, over the course of a lifetime.

Though academics today can leverage cutting-edge statistical and imaging techniques to measure maturation, much of our understanding of this pivotal transition is based on 1970s scientific scholarship – devoid of the realities of today’s world.

Jane Mendle, associate professor of human development in the College of Human Ecology, and colleagues have proposed needed revisions to the scientific approach to studying puberty.

Her group’s paper, “Understanding Puberty and Its Measurement: Ideas for Research in a New Generation,” is part of a special issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence (JRA) on puberty. It’s the first comprehensive review of the entry into adolescence that’s been published in decades.

“Our focus in this paper is to offer new ideas, perspectives for research, and methodological principles to help align the measurement of puberty with meaningful theoretical questions,” the authors wrote.

“We now have much broader public dialogues regarding sex, gender, diversity and the economic circumstances of our country,” Mendle said. “So it means something different to come of age during this particular historical era, both because our society is different and because the actual timing of puberty is earlier.”

Research in this area is just beginning to make sense of these needed changes, Mendle said. For example, foundational survey questions need to be updated to gather the best understanding of what life is like for subjects as individuals. Further, researchers have to view puberty as starting earlier than accepted average age ranges have shown. This has implications as it relates to a subject’s psychological maturity.

“One important aspect is that researchers used to think of as puberty as the beginning of adolescence,” Mendle said. “But because kids are entering puberty at younger ages, the sorts of challenges they have and their level of cognitive and emotional development at the start of puberty is now more in tune with middle childhood.”

Another critical need for modern puberty research is addressing diversity and social context within the literature, as very little research has investigated how the psychological experience of puberty may differ depending on socio-economic status, social context, race, sex and ethnicity. It is likely that the psychological changes associated with puberty are significantly influenced by these identities and background, Mendle said.

Several strategies are recommended by the researchers to address diversity and social context. These include: collaborating with researchers who have knowledge of the population under study; involving members of the community; consulting with individuals from underrepresented backgrounds; considering theoretical frameworks for diverse populations; and making methodological shifts to studies themselves, including increasing the use of open-ended questions and paying close attention to the interpretation and dissemination of data and final results.

“The more we learn on this topic, however, the clearer it is that these factors do play a role in what it means, psychologically, to grow up and enter adolescence,” Mendle said. “We have to be careful about generalizing conclusions and take care to ensure that the experiences of a broad array of kids are well-represented in the research literature.”

Researchers from Penn State University and the University of Michigan contributed to this study, which was supported by the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) and Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute.

Stephen D’Angelo is the assistant director of communications in the College of Human Ecology.

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Rebecca Valli