Jordan Dickey is one teen who seized opportunity. As a 14-year-old high-school freshman, he asked his father for something unusual: a $26,000 loan to start a business. The Dickey family, of Ramer, Tenn., raised a few cattle, and Jordan had noticed that people paid a lot more for hay in square bales than for the same amount in less-convenient round bales. After doing a feasibility study as an agriculture class project, Jordan convinced his dad to give him a three-year loan to buy a rebaling machine. He worked nights and weekends, mowing, raking, and rebaling; paid friends $7 an hour to load the bales into a trailer; and hired drivers to deliver the hay to local feed marts, since he was too young to drive. "It taught me how to manage my own money," Jordan says.
That's an understatement. Not only did he pay off the loan in one year, he made an additional $40,000. Now 17 and a senior, he has saved enough money to pay for a big chunk of college, much to his parents' delight. "He likes for the job to get done and get done right," says Perry Dickey, who owns an electroplating shop. "It was a big responsibility for him, and I'm glad he took the lines and produced."
Teens can apply the new findings to learn more without more study, notes Wilson, whose DukeLEARN program will be tested in ninth-grade health classes next year. Key points:
"Learning" how to be addicted. Teens' predisposition to learn plays a critical role in the vexing issue of teenage drinking, smoking, and drug use. Neuroscientists have learned that addiction uses the same molecular pathways that are used in learning, most notably those involving the neurotransmitter dopamine. Repeated substance use permanently reshapes those pathways, researchers say. In fact, they now look at addiction as a form of learning: Adolescent rats are far more likely to become hooked than adults.
And epidemiological studies in humans suggest that the earlier someone starts using, the more likely he or she is to end up with big problems. Last month, a study tracking more than 1,000 people in New Zealand from age 3 to age 32 found that those who started drinking or using drugs regularly before age 15 were far more likely to fail in school, be convicted of a crime, or have substance abuse problems as an adult. "You can really screw up your brain at this point," says Jensen. "You're more vulnerable than you think." (Click here to read the story of how Nick Sheff struggled with addiction as a teenager.)
When can the brain handle a beer? The new brain science has been used as a weapon by both sides of the drinking-age debate, though there is no definitive evidence for a "safe" age. "To say that 21 is based on the science of brain development is simply untrue," says John McCardell, president of Choose Responsibility, which advocates lowering the drinking age to 18. But there's also no scientific basis for choosing 18. The bottom line for now, most experts agree: Later is better.
Jay Giedd, an NIMH neuroscientist who pioneered the early MRI research on teen brains, is fond of saying that "what's important is the journey." Researchers caution that they can't prove links between brain parts and behavior, or that tackling adult-size challenges will turn teenagers into better adults. But common sense suggests that Nature had a reason to give adolescents strong bodies, impulsive natures, and curious, flexible minds. "Our generation is ready for more," insists Alex Harris, 20, of Gresham, Ore., who, with his twin brother, Brett, writes a blog and has published a book urging teens to push themselves. Its title: "Do Hard Things."