Adolescence is defined as the period of life between puberty and adult independence, between around 10 to 24 years of age. This is a period of rapid, dynamic change for young people. Adolescence frequently coincides with children’s transition into secondary schools, which have larger and unstable social hierarchies, time spent with their friends increases, and their sense of personal worth becomes increasingly dependent on the views of peers. Later in adolescence, young people transition into the workplace or higher education, bringing new responsibilities and pressures, including full economic and social independence. These educational, social and economic transitions coincide with substantial physical and hormonal changes, changes in self-identity, and changes in societal expectation surrounding responsibility. Meanwhile, brain systems supporting higher-order cognitive skills like planning and decision making, as well as the regulation of emotion and stress responses are still undergoing development. 

Transitions into adolescence are heavily influenced by experiences that occurred in childhood, and can have a significant impact on wellbeing. ‘Wellbeing’, inclusively defined, captures school performance, economic prosperity, alongside social, emotional and psychological health. Furthermore, changes that occur during adolescence can set in train life-long trajectories of mental ill health, violence and economic hardship. For instance, behavioural difficulties often first emerge in adolescence and increase the risk of school drop-out, social exclusion and later economic hardship. In the Netherlands, young people aged 15-25 are both the group at highest risk to both commit, and suffer from, criminal offences. To increase social safety and resilience, supporting young people as they transition from childhood through adolescence and beyond is a major priority for educators, practitioners, policy makers, and the criminal justice system. Such efforts have the potential to considerable reduce the presence of violence in society, as well as lowering educational under-attainment, poor economic outcomes and may help address the burgeoning mental health crisis. Crucial to these efforts are a series of ’big questions’:

 What are the historic and cultural differences in the types of behaviours that are considered to be transgressive?

What differentiates normative from (online) transgressive behaviours in adolescence?

What are the cultural, environmental, social, neurocognitive and genetic risk and resilience mechanisms of transgressive behaviours in young people?

 What are the implications of behavioural scientific insights concerning the evolving capacities of adolescents for their legal position regarding their criminal culpability?

What are most effective justice and governance structures and decisions for young people with differential risk and resilience profiles?

How can the government change policies to reduce risk for adolescent transgressive behaviours?

There are known intra-individual risk and resilience factors for transgressive behaviours (i.e. risk: low intelligence, poor school performance, poor self-regulation capacity and low impulse control; resilience: school support, friendships). However, these risk and resilience factors have primarily been examined cross-sectionally in the general population, explain only a low proportion of variance in transgressive behaviours, and have not been examined together. It is thus unknown whether known risk and resilience factors also predict transgressive behaviours in high risk populations, and what the interrelations are of these risk and resilience factors are (e.g. which factors are most important). To address this, we will bring together expertise from the Social Resilience and Safety research programme and harness existing and new data for the integrative study of transgressive behaviours in young people at high risk for transgressive behaviours due to early life adverse experiences.  

These questions transect disciplinary boundaries, making them difficult to address comprehensively. Furthermore, to date, research has relied on examining (parts of) these questions within their disciplinary field and thus on different populations using differential methods and assessments, reducing the generalizability and implications of these findings. The Social Safety and Resilience programme brings together key expertise from the Departments of Archaeology, Law, Global Governance and Affairs (FGGA), Social Sciences (FSW) and Humanities (Philosophy), in collaboration with a large network of international experts, to identify, prevent and reduce the causes and consequences of transgressive behaviours. 

THE BRAIN, SAFETY AND RESILIENCE PROJECT WILL EXAMINE THE SOCIAL AND NEUROBIOLOGICAL MECHANISMS OF RISK AND RESILIENCE TO TRANSGRESSIVE BEHAVIOURS IN AT RISK YOUNG PEOPLE. 

Childhood adversity (e.g. child abuse, neglect, peer victimization, parental psychopathology) is experienced by up to 50% of children and adolescents growing up worldwide and is one of the strongest predictors of social problems in later life. Young people with a history of child adversity are 4-11 times more likely have been involved in violence, binge drinking, drug use, to have been incarcerated, and to develop mental and physical health problems than young people without adverse experiences. To increase social safety, it is therefore imperative to better understand how resilience can be achieved in young people with a history of childhood adverse experiences. The Brain, Safety and Resilience programme will build on previous work in our group to integrate cultural, social, cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of adolescent risk and resilience to transgressive behaviours, in order to improve our understanding of social resilience in young people with a history of adversity. 

We will harness existing data (i.e. the RAISE and REACT studies) and collect new data in high risk youth to examine the cultural, social and neurobiological mechanisms of risk and resilience in young people. In doing so, we can examine how key candidate mechanisms, such as social competence and emotion processing affect behavioural control in response to stress. Young people with a history of adversity are at greater risk for interpersonal stress, and more vulnerable to its effects. As such, understanding the mechanisms of resilient responses to stress is of critical importance in order to increase social resilience in vulnerable young people. 

Acute stress shifts brain activity from higher order cognitive functioning (e.g. problem solving), towards salience detection (identifying possible threats). This shift is associated with increased activity in Default Mode and Salience network activity, and lower activity in Central Executive network. This shift is generally thought to be adaptive, but in vulnerable individuals this process has been associated with greater risk of psychopathology. Here, we will investigate whether these same mechanisms may help explain risk to transgressive behaviours in youth with a history of adversity.

THE BRAIN, SAFETY AND RESILIENCE RESEARCH PROGRAMME WILL HELP IMPROVE SOCIAL RESILIENCE IN YOUNG PEOPLE IN MULTIPLE WAYS:

DEVELOPING A NOVEL FRAMEWORK FOR ADOLESCENT ONLINE AND OFFLINE TRANSGRESSIVE BEHAVIOURS.

Definitions for transgressive behaviours vary widely between fields and even between researchers within the same field. Different disciplines work in isolation and employ their own designs and methods, despite evidence of the intersectionality of social, criminological, economic and neurocognitive influences. As such, appropriate quantification of (online) transgressive behaviours, either as victim, bystander or perpetrator, is a crucial first step in order to investigate the causes and consequences of transgressive behaviours (LAW), examine whether transgressive behaviours are effected by certain policy infrastructures and/or implementations (FGGA), adapt theoretical models (Philosophy), and to assess whether there are different conceptualizations across modern societies (Archaeology). This project will provide the necessary first step to achieve this goal, by providing an integrative conceptual and quantitative framework for the identification of key (online) transgressive behaviours.  

UNDERSTANDING THE SOCIAL AND NEUROCOGNITIVE MECHANISMS OF ADOLESCENT RESILIENCE TO STRESS.

Insights from the neurocognitive mechanisms that make young people at risk to transgressive behaviour can inform intervention and prevention efforts at all layers of the exposome. These insights have the potential to impact both on culpability (i.e. whether or not to impose ‘youth law’), as well as sentencing judgements. For instance, depending on the nature of the underlying mechanism hypothesized to be, in part, responsible, it may be beneficial to suggest antidepressant treatment to improve fronto-limbic connectivity, cognitive control training, emotion bias training, or journaling to facilitate better accessibility to positive specific memories (Law). It is further imperative to investigate whether the neurocognitive vulnerability mechanisms studied here can be targeted through counselling such as talking therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy (Psychology), interventions at the level of the school (Pedagogy), or at the level of the social structures (FGGA), and whether that can lead to strengthening positive relationships, better understanding one’s own emotions, or enhancing positive behaviours towards challenging situations etc (FSW). Such improved understanding will provide unique insights into criminological models of the causes and consequences of transgressive behaviours in young people. Both Philosophy and FGGA will then prove instrumental in translating these findings into tractable, ethically sound and efficacious policy recommendations.