You heard wrong: Teens struggle with interpreting peers’ tones of voice, study finds

MONTREAL, Quebec — Teenagers naturally have a tendency to be moody and emotional, but a new study finds that there may be another explanation as to why many teens don’t seem to get along: they frequently misinterpret one another’s tone of voice.

Interestingly, teenagers can read adults’ tones of voice just fine, according to researchers who conducted the study at McGill University, but when it comes to hearing out others of their own age, they find themselves having trouble. Mid-adolescence, or between the ages of 13 and 15, is the most difficult time period for this problem, the authors say, and the tones of voice that express meanness, disgust, happiness, and anger were the most difficult for teenagers to discern in each other.

“Our results suggest that teenagers have not yet reached maturity in either their ability to identify vocal emotions, or to express them,” explains first author Michele Morningstar, who conducted the research while completing her Ph.D. in psychology at the university, in a statement. “This means that teenagers face quite a challenge in their social spheres: they must interpret poorly expressed cues with immature recognition skills. Understanding how we learn emotional communication skills will be important to help teenagers who struggle socially.”

Morningstar played 140 recordings made by child and adult actors to 50 teenagers between 13 and 15 years old and to 86 adults between 18 and 30 years old. The recordings conveyed neutral phrases like, “I can’t believe you just did that,” which could be expressed with many different intonations to convey different meanings and emotions. For example, this clip is intended to portray meanness, while this one is meant to indicate sadness.

All participants were asked to select the emotion being conveyed in each recording out of five basic emotions: anger, disgust, happiness, fear, and sadness, as well as the general social tone (friendly or hostile.)

The adult subjects were able to successfully identify tone among fellow adults as well as teens. The teen subjects, on the other hand, were able to read adults’ emotions no problem, but couldn’t display the same insight among their peers. Researchers hypothesized, based on this study and previous research, that teenagers struggle to interpret tone of voice in their peers because they struggle to convey emotion with their voices.

“Parents shouldn’t get too discouraged by these findings,” comments senior author Melanie Dirks. “Although what we showed is that it takes longer for teens to recognize and identify the feelings of others than had previously been thought to be the case, further research from Dr. Morningstar suggests that it may just be a matter of brain development. That things will come with time.”

The study is published in The Journal of Nonverbal Behavior.

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