Valuable insights from the GUTS conference 2023

How do young people with varying opportunities grow up in an increasingly complex society? And what are the main causes for individual differences in contributing to society? These are the central questions at the heart of the Growing Up Together in Society (GUTS) project. In this article, you read what the key takeaways from the GUTS conference are.

On October 10th and 11th, the kick-off conference for the GUTS project took place at the Trippenhuis in Amsterdam. The event brought together a diverse and interdisciplinary audience, including sociologists, neuroscientists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and societal partners. The GUTS conference presented a state-of-the-art overview and outlined the future of the research project. It also served as a platform for discussing contemporary societal issues, such as the positive role influencers can play in mental health of young people and the potential impact of political decisions on youth brain development.

GUTS is a decade long collaboration of researchers from seven universities based in the Netherlands spanning a wide variety of disciplines. Many topics were discussed by top speakers in the international field and brought valuable insights regarding both the current state of the research and its future directions.

‘Spend time with young people. Take the time to genuinely listen to their stories; only then can you truly understand the statistical data from your research.’

The influence of influencers

Amine Bakkali from MIND US kicked off the conference with an impressive presentation on the impact of influencers on the mental health of adolescents. ‘Influencers, or figureheads, play a significant role in the lives of young people. For example, some young individuals reach out to their role models by sending them direct messages on Instagram about their mental issues. Health care professionals and researchers should not underestimate the effect that these influencers can have on their followers’ mental well-being. We need to equip influencers with the tools to respond appropriately when young people reach out to them for help.’ Bakkali also emphasized the importance of actively engaging with young people to improve scientific research: ‘Spend time with young people. Take the time to genuinely listen to their stories; only then can you truly understand the statistical data from your research.’

Longitudinal measurements: exploring youth development over time

The GUTS project seeks to gain insights into how youth development is influenced by having limited opportunities while growing up. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore stressed the importance of understanding individual differences: ‘How do genetics relate to brain development? What impact do environmental factors have on the brain, cognition and behavior, and what do these influences mean in a person’s life?’ When looking into individual variations in developmental paths during adolescence, longitudinal measurements are key. In the GUTS project, longitudinal measurements mean tracking individuals’ development over a ten-year period. We collect brain measurements and examine factors linked to our participants’ psychological well-being and social environment at multiple time-points between the ages of 10 and 20 years old.

The seductive allure of neuroscience

It is essential to note, as Blakemore pointed out in her talk, that brain measures do not provide a complete explanation. What do changes in biological measures of the brain, such as changes in grey or white matter volume, signify for social behavior? We still need social cognitive experiments to gain a deeper understanding. Also, she stated that findings in brain research are often overly generalized: ‘The brain continues to evolve throughout life and does not strictly stop developing at your 25th birthday.’ In the GUTS project and in adolescent brain development research in general, we must remain aware of the ‘seductive allure of neuroscience’, as Blakemore suitably described it.

‘Political and societal changes, such as cash transfer programs that provide a consistent amount of financial support to individuals in poverty, have an impact on brain development.’

The link between poverty, brain development and mental health

Deanne Barch underscored the crucial connection between poverty, brain development, and mental health. For instance, in the ABCD study involving 11,000 youths across the USA, it was discovered that a lower income-to-need ratio was associated with higher levels of internalizing problems, such as depression. Additionally, neighborhood deprivation, independent of family income, was correlated with increased externalizing symptoms, such as aggression. When addressing potential solutions, Barch pointed out that ‘political and societal changes, such as cash transfer programs that provide a consistent amount of financial support to individuals in poverty, have an impact on brain development. This implies that positive influences on the mental health of young people are achievable through policy decisions at the state or country level.’ This is an important message for the GUTS project.

‘Wanting to matter – to feel recognized, appreciated, and capable of actions that contribute to the lives of others – represents a fundamental motivation in human development.’

Contributing to society

During the conference, we learned that having the feeling that you could contribute to your environment is crucial for the development of young individuals. The opportunity to make contributions at school, within family, communities, or social circles leads to improved mental well-being and better functioning on psychological, social, and physical levels. Andrew Fuligni emphasized this in his talk: ‘Contributing to society supports young people in the development of their identity and independence.’ This is a call to action for GUTS: how can we facilitate this in practice and make contributing possible for all young people?

Ron Dahl concluded the conference with a global perspective on the diversity of opportunities for youth. ‘Wanting to matter – to feel recognized, appreciated, and capable of actions that contribute to the lives of others – represents a fundamental motivation in human development. Incentive salience for mattering becomes amplified in adolescence,’ he stated. He also emphasized that young people have access to an abundance of information and, thus, play a significant role in a rapidly changing world. To address inequalities in opportunities to contribute, we should invest in providing support and opportunities for positive learning experiences.

The day after the conference, the 21 GUTS PhDs and 5 Postdocs had a meeting day to get to know each other better, work on the action plans discussed during the conference, discuss their research projects in more detail and a workshop on scientific communication.

10 Years of GUTS

Thanks to all conference attendees, speakers, and consortium partners for their invaluable contributions to the GUTS Starting Conference 2023. We hope that you have experienced that the GUTS consortium is not just a program, but a movement in which many (young) scientists, young individuals and societal partners are encouraged to join. As a result, we can conduct research across the boundaries of disciplines, combining new perspectives in one program. We are looking forward to the next 10 years!

We are looking for your input!

GUTS is more than just a research project; it is also a community. In our GUTS community, we believe that science is a collective effort. Have you attended the GUTS conference and been inspired about the future of GUTS? Or do you have insights that can help improve the GUTS project? We value every voice and idea on our route toward a promising future for the new generation.

We kindly invite you to share your ideas and suggestions for the GUTS project on our digital post-it wall. Open the following link to share ideas and suggestions and be inspired by the ideas of others:


GUTS Conference 2023 speakers: Eveline Crone (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Amine Bakkali (MIND Us), Andrew Fuligni (University of California, Los Angeles), Sarah-Jayne Blakemore (University of Cambridge), Beatriz Luna (University of Pittsburgh), Deanna Barch (Washington University, St. Louis), Hilleke Hulshoff Pol (Utrecht University), Lucres Nauta-Jansen (AmsterdamUMC/VUMC), Emily Garman (University of Cape Town), Berna Güroğlu (Leiden University), Jennifer Pfeifer (University of Oregon), Lydia Krabbendam (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), Ingmar Franken (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Christoph Stadtfeld (ETH Zürich), Matteo Giletta (University of Ghent), Mitch Prinstein (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Eva Telzer (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Ron Dahl (University of California, Berkeley)

Interactive Lunch presentation: YoungXperts team (Kayla Green, Lysanne te Brinke, Yara Toenders, Suzanne van de Groep, Renske van der Cruijsen)

Chairs: Christian Keysers (KNAW/NIN), Ingmar Franken (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Anna van Duijvenvoorde (Leiden University), Lucres Nauta-Jansen (AmsterdamUMC/VUMC).


Photos: Alexander Santos Lima

Written by Sterre van Riel (science communication manager GUTS)

Discussing performance pressure with 800 festivalgoers

While the festival’s music softly echoed through the walls of the science tent, Eveline Crone and demissionary minister Robbert Dijkgraaf discussed the issue of performance pressure with 800 Lowlands visitors. Should the current generation of youth stop complaining? Or should we take the upward trend of mental issues among adolescents and concerns about the performance driven society more seriously?

As presenter Jim Jansen puts forward the statement that young people nowadays complain too much, Eveline Crone responds: ‘Young people generally don’t complain that much. Research shows that there is indeed an increase in mental issues among youth, with pressure to perform in school being one of the causes. Simultaneously, adolescence is a period in which you are intrinsically motivated to contribute to the world around you. Young people are often the drivers of major societal protests, like the climate protests. We should harness this strength. Give young people’s voices more priority when taking action to reduce mental stress’, argues Eveline.

‘I want to encourage young people to actually complain more,’ adds Robbert Dijkgraaf. ‘Organize yourselves and make your voices heard, participate in discussions about how we can better structure education. Besides the systemic changes we need to make, such as reducing the binding study advice and reinstating the basic grant (‘basisbeurs’), it is incredibly valuable to identify young people’s obstacles. We can only achieve this by including young people in the conversation,’ is Dijkgraaf’s message.

From the lively audience, a critical sound also emerged: ‘If you are already busy with your studies, part-time job, and social life, might the responsibility to raise your voice related to these issues actually add more stress?’. A valid question. Minister Dijkgraaf responds by saying that there should be space for these matters within the education system. ‘We should offer the opportunity to, for example, engage in union work within your curriculum or earn credits by participating in youth panels.’

‘My suggestion for young people would be that even small-scale contributions can be valuable,’ Eveline adds. ‘Contribute your thoughts at your own educational institution, for instance by joining the student advisory board. This way, you could come up with targeted solutions to alleviate stress among your fellow students.’

The packed crowd on a sunny Lowlands afternoon certainly proves that the mental health of young people is a topic that resonates. The Lowlands attendees seem to agree – including young people in the conversation is crucial for improving their mental well-being.


Read more about performance pressure among youth:


Photo: Dimitri Hakke