Over the past two decades, research into adolescent brain and behavior has enriched our understanding of general developmental patterns. However, the profound effects of various societal influences on youth development remain to be clarified.

How is development influenced by having fewer opportunities while growing up? What is the impact of poor relationships with parents or peers, or involvement in antisocial environments? What fuels resilience in young individuals and under what circumstances does development go astray?

To grasp underlying mechanisms of the impact of diverse societal contexts on the way young people become engaged citizens in society, we developed a comprehensive approach. At its core, our approach places a strong emphasis on the role of self-regulation in growing up.

The role of self-regulation in growing up

Self-regulation is defined as the ability to be in charge of your own behavior and knowing how to react to your environment. Young people constantly have to make decisions: do I choose for myself now, or am I going to do something that could contribute to my surroundings later? How do young people make these choices? And how do adolescents navigate through different kind of personal goals while reaching adulthood?

Scientific studies show that individuals with better self-regulation are better at balancing immediate and delayed gratification and balancing their own and others’ needs. The GUTS program acts on this fact by intending to develop a new direction in research: we look at youth’s contributions to society through the lens of an advanced theoretical framework that is centered around self-regulation.

Our theoretical framework predicts that self-regulation development is a key factor that explains why some adolescents and young adults navigate societal and social challenges more successfully than others. Self-regulation is therefore expected to be an important predictor of contributions to society. Not only during adolescence, but also later in life. Understanding how young people develop the ability to regulate theirselves over time, together with their adaptation to environmental challenges, may provide solutions to decrease the effect of social inequalities on young people’s potentials.

Longitudinal approach

In understanding the influence of self-regulation on the development of individuals, longitudinal measurements are key. In our study, longitudinal measurements mean that we keep track of the individuals’ development for a period of ten years. We collect brain measurements and examine factors related to our participants’ psychological state and social environment at multiple time-points between the age of 10 and 20 years.

Our longitudinal approach will be key to the success of this program. Self-regulation is not a fixed trait, but is constantly evolving. Having the ability to regulate your behavior enables a young person to become the architect of their social environment. In other words, those who develop faster toward high levels of self-regulation are expected to have more profitable personal en societal outcomes.

Here, self-regulation is expected to mediate the relation between societal opportunities and outcomes: self-regulation positively influences the contributions an individual can make to society.

Some children grow up in more challenging environments than others: their families might have fewer socio-economic resources, their peer networks might be less supportive or their neighborhoods might be more antisocial. In our pilot studies we showed that adolescents who had less access to online education and family support during the COVID-19 crisis, reported enlarged tension and reduced vigor. These findings support that access to education and family support are important in providing equal opportunities for development.

Self-regulation may therefore also protect against detrimental effects of societal inequalities. When part of self-regulation is a trait, self-regulation is expected to moderate the relation between societal opportunities and personal and societal outcomes.

According to the moderation model, individual differences in the ability to self-regulate may protect against or accelerate potential detrimental effects of unequal opportunities on personal and societal outcomes. Disentangling these bidirectional influences in our studies requires the ability to follow processes over time.