This is an excerpt from the book “CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media,” by Gwenn Schurgin O’Keeffe, MD (American Academy of Pediatrics, $14.95).
The Teen Brain
Work in progress is the best description for any growing child, especially teenagers — and their brains! Teen brains are capable of amazing thought and creativity but are becoming rewired in a fast-paced and unique way that leaves them efficient one moment and clumsy the next.
New research using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology is beginning to sort out the complex nature of the teen brain. It’s becoming very clear that teenagers do not use the same areas of the adult, mature brain right away and are driven early in the teenage process by the centers in the brain responsible for gut reaction and impulse. This is important to understand because it helps us gain perspective about why our teens don’t understand social consequences or emotional messages, yet they can be overachievers in school, sports, music, or any other event they set their mind to.
Jay Giedd, MD, notes on www.dana.org, “In many ways adolescence is the healthiest time of life. The immune system, resistance to cancer, tolerance for heat and cold and several other variables are at their peak.”
At the same, time, Dr. Giedd notes that mortality for teens has increased by 300 percent and in areas that are directly related to risk taking — driving resulting in accidents, weapon use resulting in homicide, and drug and alcohol use resulting in suicide. These are the number 1, 2, and 3 causes of death in this age group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This isn’t too surprising when you take a step back and consider what parts of the brain teens use for rational thought and decision-making compared with the fully mature brain of adults. Using MRI technology, researchers, including Dr. Giedd, have been able to document that teens and adults use very different parts of the brain for similar activities, such as those involving reading of emotions, decision-making, and higher functioning.
As adults, we use our frontal lobe, the so-called CEO or executive center of our brains. Teens don’t use that area of the brain for decision-making; they use a more primitive part of the brain called the amygdale. The amygdale is thought to be where our gut reactions originate. If this is where our teens’ decision-making reactions are centered, it does help explain, to a degree, why they are so impulsive.
Gary Small, MD, who has studied the impact of technology on the brain and cowrote the book iBrain, agrees. Dr Small explained that the adolescent brain is still developing during the teenage years. Due to a process called pruning, 60 percent of the synaptic connections will be pruned away during these years. How our kids spend their time will likely affect this process, although, he explained, we don’t yet fully understand how.
The prefrontal cortex is not fully developed in teens, so Dr. Small feels that the major question we have to consider is what the effect of increased technology is on our teens’ overall development, including social interactions and empathy. Dr. Small wonders if the 40-year-old of tomorrow will be less empathetic than the 40-year-old of today because of this effect, and be less able to problem solve. He is seeing some of this play out now as he discusses the effect of technology on brains across the country. College professors have told Dr. Small that students are less focused and are texting during class.
“We jump from idea to idea like we jump from website to website,” he explained in a phone interview. “We teach them ideas but it’s hard to settle them down. As I was talking (in his lecture), they were texting.”
Unplugging for Life
“Families are really struggling with this,” noted Dr Small.
The good news is that the brain is incredibly resilient and further research will likely teach us much more about helping our teens and tweens negotiate the world with a prominent role of technology. “It takes us a while to give up what we want and technology is so alluring,” he explained. “Change in behavior is a hard sell.”
So not texting in class, going hands free, even unplugging once in a while will take time to relearn but are crucial for all of us, especially our growing kids.
Beyond allowing ourselves to be detached from technology, the other issue to consider is social. If we don’t reclaim some unplugged time, how will our kids learn to communicate face-to-face? How will they learn to talk with each other and adults? How will they learn to settle their issues face-to-face and not with technology as an intermediary? (Dr. Small’s book has exercises as well as quizzes that help identify people at risk for social problems that are worth noting.)
Much ado about nothing? I don’t think so. All the experts I spoke with had at least one experience with their own tween or teen that reminded them that their own kids are struggling with social skills, even with technology at play.
Rachel Dretzin, a producer for PBS Frontline, told me how her 11½-year-old son will answer the phone then hang up with a “Bye.”
At 15, my daughter will sometimes answer the phone with “What?” Or if she calls, she will just dive into what’s on her mind without saying “Hi” or “It’s me.”
The issue is reading faces and learning to express emotion. We can’t let our kids off the hook with the difficult social and emotional tasks they will encounter growing up. Ask yourself this: are the future 40-somethings that
Dr. Small predicts the type of people you want to be parents to your future grandkids?
Technology may have an effect on our kids and their brains, but we can have a bigger effect if we pay more attention to the on and off switch!