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Major research project GUTS kicks off: How can this generation of young people grow up successfully?

After a big two-day conference, the Growing Up Together in Society consortium has officially begun. Researchers from seven universities will spend the next decade looking at how young people grow up as engaged and resilient adults. Leiden psychologists explain how they will do so.

Eveline Crone: 'All scientists come together with the same ambition: a better future for young people in our society.'
Eveline Crone: 'All scientists come together with the same ambition: a better future for young people in our society.'

How do you make your way through an incessant stream of information coming at you through social media? How do you keep faith in a future that seems more uncertain than ever because of complex global problems? And how do you remain authentic while all you want is to fit in with the rest?

Constant balancing act 

Growing up as a young adult in these times requires a constant balancing act. That is what the 17 speakers, who gathered from all over the world at Amsterdam's Trippenhuis on 10 and 11 October for the Growing Up Together in Society conference emphasise. 'All these scientists, from psychology, psychiatry, sociology, genetics and family research, are all coming together with the same ambition: a better future for young people in our society,' says Eveline Crone, professor at Erasmus University and Leiden University and initiator of the GUTS project.

The consortium aims to identify which factors influence how someone grows up. For instance, to what extent being bullied affects not only mental but also physical health, what is the role of study buddies in achieving academic success and what is the relationship between poverty, opportunity inequality and mental health. But also: how online influencers can play a positive role in young people's development, for example by opening up the conversation about mental health.

What is GUTS?

The conference marks the start of a 10-year research project. The Growing Up Together in Society consortium is funded by an NWO Gravity Grant.

Berna Güroğlu, researcher at the unit of Developmental and Educational Psychology of the Institute of Psychology at Leiden University, is one of the six main applicants for the grant. The other main applicants are affiliated with VU Amsterdam, University of Groningen, Utrecht University, Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Amsterdam UMC, and furthermore, Radboud UMC and the Netherlands Brain Institute are also involved in the consortium. Eveline Crone, professor of Developmental Neuroscience in Society at Erasmus University and professor of Neurocognitive Developmental Psychology at Leiden University, is co-leader.

Also involved as co-applicants from Leiden University are Anna van Duijvenvoorde, from the unit of Developmental and Educational Psychology, and Mark de Rooij, from the Methodology and Statistics unit. 

Berna Güroğlu: 'You only really understand people in the context of their environment.'

About the studies

GUTS consists of five research projects, so-called work packages, each with its own research team and research group. Below we expand on the projects in which Leiden researchers are directly involved. 

Social networks: self-regulation in an increasingly complex social world, led by Berna Güroğlu (Leiden University) and René Veenstra (Groningen University)

How do young people's social networks influence their motivation and goals? And how do such social dynamics change over the years? Berna Güroğlu, Professor of Neuroscience of Social Relationships, explains how they want to investigate this: 'We are going to follow a large group of young people who live in a close-knit network with each other, for example a group of first-year students or a student union. We want to map their complex social network and follow it over a long period of time, including through surveys and brain scans.' A longitudinal and large-scale study, which has not been done in that form before. 'A lot of social development research is still focused on individuals, but you only really understand people in context with their environment.'

Social Economic Status and Success, led by Eveline Crone (Erasmus University and Leiden University) and Lydia Krabbendam (VU Amsterdam)

For children to be successful at school, it is important that they can regulate themselves, i.e. control their own behaviour and goals. But the extent to which a child can do this is influenced by socio-economic status, genes and the social environment, among other things. How exactly these dynamics work, the scientists want to discover by investigating two groups of children as young as ten years old in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, for instance with MRI scans and behavioural tests.

Anna van Duijvenvoorde is one of the researchers focusing on Rotterdam youth. 'Teenagers are quite often portrayed as unmotivated, but that stereotype is certainly not always true. I'd like to know what motivates young people to do something for someone else or for society. Brain research offers a unique insight into how connected we feel to others during adolescence and how this drives our behaviour. The great value of GUTS lies in the combination of insights: we ask young people themselves what motivates them and what goals they have, we investigate what choices they make and how their brain reacts. This requires close cooperation within our team and with young people themselves to make this possible.'

Responsible predictive modelling: integrating cohorts to predict young people's contribution to society, Mark de Rooij

Mark de Rooij, Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Data Theory, will not collect any new data himself, but will use all the data from the GUTS consortium. By combining the data from the various work packages, he hopes to arrive at an overarching, interdisciplinary theory of how young people develop into engaged adults who contribute to society.

De Rooij: 'For the first time, elements from genetics, neuroscience, psychology, social networks and environment are being merged in this way to arrive at more insight. The size of that merged data is very large, so-called big data, and the characteristics of that data from these different disciplines vary greatly and so cannot simply be combined. This makes the research very challenging.'

Want to know more about the other two work packages? Visit the GUTS website.

Photography: Brian Lubking

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