Adolescent development

Investing in adolescents builds strong economies, inclusive communities and vibrant societies.

Adolescents in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, collect air pollution data as part of the Air Pollution Youth Mappers programme. Equipped with portable monitors provided by UNICEF, they walk through their communities to measure air quality.
UNICEF/UN0253450/Pasquall

The second decade of life is a time of transformation.

During adolescence (ages 10–19), girls and boys begin to interact with the world in new ways – taking chances, learning skills and experiencing unfamiliar emotions.

They venture beyond their families to form powerful connections with peers. They search for ways to stand out and belong, to find their place in society and make a difference in their world.

Today’s generation of young people is larger than ever before. But far too many are not getting what they need to realize their full range of rights. Poverty and deprivation, gender inequality and other forms of discrimination intersect with climate change, economic upheaval, conflict and displacement to threaten adolescents’ well-being.

And through it all, adolescents are too often ignored by policymakers – or worse, viewed as problems or threats.


Key facts

  • There are 1.2 million adolescents worldwide – the largest cohort ever, and the most educated and urbanized.
  • 90 per cent of adolescents live in low- and middle-income countries, and 125 million live in areas affected by armed conflict.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa’s growing adolescent population, expected to reach 500 million by 2050, has the potential to fuel powerful change – if Governments invest in and engage it.
  • 1 in 4 of the poorest adolescents has never attended school, and more than 200 million adolescents of secondary school age are out of school.
  • Adolescents are the only age group among whom AIDS-related deaths are not decreasing.

A window of opportunity

The rapid physical and cognitive development that marks adolescence creates a critical window of opportunity.

The adolescent brain develops at a rate unseen since early childhood – making girls and boys hypersensitive to influences in their environments. Adolescents’ inclination to try new things can spark innovation and achievement, but it can also leave them vulnerable.

These are the years when gender roles may be solidified – with girls bearing the brunt of gender inequality.

Adolescents’ prospects depend on the quality of their environments, relationships and experiences. The care and support they receive, the services they can access, the social norms that guide their communities, and the extent to which they can influence decisions that affect them all make a difference.

3 children in white t-shirts and caps sit in a boat paddled by an standing adult
UNICEF/UN0286870/Dicko
‘Child ambassadors’ go door to door in their community in Mali to urge parents to send their out-of-school children back to school. In Mali, where over 2 million children and adolescents are out of school, the UNICEF-supported programme has engaged 3,800 such ambassadors.

UNICEF’s work with adolescents

Investing in adolescents strengthens their ability to advance human rights and build a bright future for themselves, their families and entire countries.

UNICEF takes a life-course approach to adolescent development and participation, identifying critical risks and opportunities that have implications for the realization of children’s rights, from the first decade through the second.

We address gaps in data to build evidence that drives action where it is most needed. With Governments and other partners, UNICEF works to strengthen health care, education and protection systems to ensure critical supplies and services reach the last mile, even in emergencies.

We advocate for adolescents’ rights at the national level, while locally engaging families and communities – often through programmes that change behaviours and social norms.

Our emphasis on equity puts the most marginalized adolescents – including girls, those who belong to ethnic or racial minorities, and those with disabilities – at the centre.

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Health and well-being

UNICEF works with health providers to support gender-responsive services tailored to adolescents’ needs, including for HIV prevention and treatment. We support nutrition to fuel developing bodies and brains, work to ensure that girls have what they need to manage their menstrual health and hygiene, and generate evidence on adolescent mental health.
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Learning and skills

UNICEF works with Governments and other partners to expand and protect access to quality, gender-equitable education, and to improve student participation and learning. We work alongside adolescents to co-create solutions that support their transition into adult life and work, like traditional and non-formal paths to education and skills development.
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Protection

To keep adolescents safe and supported, UNICEF works to prevent and respond to violence within families, among peers, in schools and online. We also tackle the growing risks adolescents face in humanitarian settings, promote adolescent-friendly justice systems, and address harmful practices like child marriage and female genital mutilation.
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Participation and civic engagement

To expand opportunities for adolescents to participate meaningfully in their communities and the political processes that affect them, UNICEF empowers them to actively engage and voice their views and opinions. We also work with partners, including youth organizations, to change the social norms that stand in the way, and develop platforms for adolescents to share their experiences and propose solutions.

Resources

Programme Guidance for the Second Decade: Programming with and for Adolescents

Learn more about the guiding principles and priorities of UNICEF’s work on adolescent development and participation.


Committee on the Rights of the Child: Comment on Adolescent Rights

Read guidance for States on measures to promote comprehensive adolescent development consistent with the realization of adolescents’ rights, from the Committee on the Rights of the Child.


Adolescent Data Overview

Explore the latest data on adolescents, from UNICEF global databases.


Adolescent Country Tracker

Explore this set of key indicators across five domains of adolescent well-being, plus additional indicators of their environment.


The Adolescent Brain: A Second Window of Opportunity – A Compendium

Experts in adolescent neuroscience present findings from their research to foster better collaboration between the scientific community and social service providers working with adolescents.


Innocenti Research Digest on Adolescents

Read this quarterly publication that reviews the latest global evidence on adolescent well-being.


Voices of Youth

Check out original content by and for young people from around the world, offering insight, opinion and inspiration in four languages.


Conceptual Framework for Measuring Outcomes of Adolescent Participation

This framework identifies key aspects of adolescent participation and how it works in practice, with a view to building evidence to support adolescents’ right to participation.


Adolescents and a Sustainable Future: An Investment Opportunity for the Private Sector

This document makes the case for investing in adolescents and partnering with UNICEF to advance their rights.