Decoding the Teenage Brain

Edutopia

New technologies are shedding light on what really makes adolescents tick—and providing clues on how we might reach them better.

January 31, 2019

 

A recent interview with British neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, the author of the 2018 book Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain, begins with a caveat.

“I think it’s important to know before we start that up until 20 years ago we really didn’t know that the brain changes at all after childhood,” she confides. “That’s what I was taught during my undergraduate degree. We now know that’s completely untrue.”

In matters of settled opinion, science has often found itself in the role of provocateur, even saboteur—prodding at conventional wisdoms until they yield unexpected truths, and sometimes toppling them entirely. The mysteries of celestial bodies, heredity, and mental illness have all undergone dramatic rethinking.

So it shouldn’t be entirely surprising that new technologies that allow us to peer into the brain as it processes information are driving a revolution in our understanding of human cognition. Images from fMRI machines, for example, reveal that the brain is less like a collection of discrete, specialized modules—one for speech and one for vision, the old model—and more like an integrated network of functions that support each other. Those same images show that cerebral networks undergo dramatic, global maturation well into our 20s.

The findings have cast doubt on many theories about adolescence. For too long, assertions about teenagers—from their purported irrationality to their apparent sense of invulnerability—have circulated widely and uncritically. The new research suggests that we have plenty of rethinking to do.

OF MICE AND MINORS

Adolescent rodents and adolescent humans are susceptible to peer pressure—and members of both species take risks at much higher rates when in the presence of companions their own age.

In a study conducted in 2005, neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg asked teenagers and adults to play a virtual driving game that tested their willingness to take risks as traffic lights turned from green to yellow to red. Participants were penalized when accidents occurred. Adolescents responded to the risks as well as adults did and performed about equally when playing alone. But in the presence of peers, risk-taking surged among the teenagers and young adults—risky driving increased threefold for 13- to 16-year-olds, and the number of crashes spiked—while remaining flat among adults.

Chart showing research on adolescent driving

Illustration by Leigh Wells

In driving games—and in life—adolescents operate a vehicle safely when alone. Around peers, though, everything changes.

A study involving mice and alcohol consumption reached a similar conclusion. That 2014 experiment exposed rodents of different ages to the equivalent of an open bar: They could drink alcohol at their leisure. The adolescent mice—those at the tender age of 4 to 5 weeks—drank about as often as adult mice when by themselves. But in the presence of other juveniles, they settled in for a bender, drinking 25 percent more of the time. There was no change in the drinking of adult mice.

These results aren’t just laboratory tricks. Using real crash data from 2007–10, a study published in 2012 found that the risk of death for teenagers driving alone increased by 44 percent per mile when traveling with one peer, and quadrupled with three peers in the car. By contrast, Blakemore writes, traveling companions are actually a “protective factor” for adults over 26, “who are less likely to crash if they have a passenger than if they’re alone.”

In a few recent experiments, peer pressure emerges as a measurable biological phenomenon, crossing over into the perceptible world like the first earthquake waves etched onto a seismograph. A 2013 study found that when human subjects were told that a peer was watching them, skin conductance readings—a measure of the electricity triggered by stress and arousal—were consistently higher in adolescents than in either adults or children. Brain scans administered at the same time revealed telltale flares of greater activity in key regions of the teenage brain linked to self-awareness and the ability to understand others.

It’s never been a question of feeling invulnerable—for teenagers, there’s just something about the presence of peers that is transfiguring. They understand the risks, and take them anyway.

A TELLING MISMATCH

A likely culprit in adolescent risk-taking is a brain network that stretches back deep into evolutionary history—the limbic system, the seat of primal instincts like fear, lust, hunger, and pleasure. “These are regions in the deep center of the brain,” explained Blakemore. ”They are much older, and we share these systems with a lot of other animals.”

In 2014, Blakemore and two colleagues gathered brain images of 33 people and plotted the growth rates of individual limbic systems over time. They also looked at another critical brain region: the prefrontal cortex.

Chart showing gray matter growth comparison in teenagers

Illustration by Leigh Wells

Adolescent brain scans reveal that reward systems mature well before inhibitory systems. That tends to confirm a major theory of teenage development.

The charts that resulted (above) show that limbic structures like the nucleus accumbens changed only modestly during adolescence while the prefrontal cortex experienced a dramatic shift in volume, shrinking and reorganizing as it pruned away unused synaptic connections. The upshot? The brain scans seem to indicate that the limbic system—the brain’s reward system—is mature and firing on all cylinders in teenagers, while the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for things like self-control, planning, and self-awareness, is still busy developing.

“One major theory of adolescent development is that there is a mismatch between these two systems,” Blakemore elaborated. “The limbic system, which gives you the rewarding feeling of taking risks, is structurally more developed before the prefrontal cortex, which stops you from taking risks.”

If that seems too neat to you, Blakemore agrees. “I wouldn’t discount social factors like changing schools,” she cautions, or “overlook individual differences in teenagers.”

Still, there’s plenty of evidence that the limbic system is hyperactive during adolescence. It’s not youthful irrationality or a flair for the dramatic at work; teenagers actually experience things like music, drugs, and the thrill of speed more powerfully than adults do. In his 2014 book Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, Steinberg draws a straight line to peer influence as well, noting that teenage peers “light up the same reward centers that are aroused by drugs, sex, food, and money.”

ALL NATURAL PLASTIC

It’s not all gloom and doom. The teenage years are “the last, great neuroplastic era in our lifetimes,” according to Steinberg, referring to the brain’s continued capacity for intellectual and emotional growth. The same emerging circuitry that makes teenagers vulnerable to risky behavior and mood swings also confers significant advantage on adolescent learners.

Chart depicting brain response in adolescent mice

Illustration by Leigh Wells

A snapshot of the rodent brain at a moment of learning: The young mouse’s brain reveals a more powerful learning response.

At the deep neural level, new information is written into the gray matter of the brain itself—expressed in structural changes to synapses, which, through repeated exposure, form increasingly durable webs of memory. A study conducted in 2002 provides a fascinating window into the brain at the very moment of learning. The chart above shows the electrical response in both adolescent and adult mice to a novel piece of information, represented by the red arrow. Like a bell struck more sharply, the brain of the adolescent mouse produces a more dramatic reply—and then sustains it for longer.

That’s good news—and a clear signal that the teenage brain is by nature more receptive to learning, says Frances Jensen in her 2015 book The Teenage Brain. Adolescent animals simply “show faster learning curves than adults,” and we retain the capacity to improve even fundamental attributes like our IQ well into our teenage years.

REACHING TEENAGERS IN CLASS

Take the direct approach: Talking to teenagers frankly about their brain development can provide useful context for their emotional worlds, and reset their expectations about their potential for continued intellectual growth. “We know that people like biological explanations. It’s true in neurological stroke patients—showing that the brain is plastic and can change and rehabilitate is really useful,” Blakemore said.

Explaining the role of the limbic system, the influence of peers, and the malleability of the teenage brain establishes a basis for students to better understand themselves and exert control over their emotional and academic lives. Blakemore insists there’s also a simple question of respect at stake: “They have a right to know,” she says emphatically. “It’s happening in their brains.”

Make good use of peer pressure: Peer pressure and social influence can be used for good, too. Smoking research shows, for example, that teens ignore warnings about the long-term health consequences of cigarettes, but respond to the social effects. It’s more convincing to remind teens that cigarettes “give you bad breath, or put younger children in danger,” said Blakemore. Teens “also respond to the idea that this is an adult industry that is exploiting them to make money. That has been shown to help for smoking and also for healthy eating.”

Schools are aware of many of these social dynamics, and have used teen leaders, social influencers, and appeals to fairness and justice to change behaviors around vapingbullying, and academic cheating.

Teach self-regulation: It’s not too late. The prefrontal cortex, which governs executive functions, is still developing and remains highly responsive to the environment and to training during adolescence. It stands to reason that explicitly teaching self-regulation, long-term planning, and empathy might have particular benefits for teenagers.

According to Steinberg, efforts to improve the self-regulation of teenagers “are far more likely to be effective in reducing risky behavior than are those that are limited to providing them with information about risky activities.” And social and emotional learning programs that show adolescents “how to regulate their emotions, manage stress, and consider other people’s feelings” can have positive effects on executive functions more generally, improving focus and self-discipline, and setting teenagers up for academic and professional success well beyond high school.

The author of this article is the chief content officer at Edutopia. You can follow him on Twitter @smerrill777.

The charts in this story were drawn by illustrator Leigh Wells, and adapted from studies by 1) Margo Gardner and Laurence Steinberg, 2005; 2) K.L. Mills, A.L. Goddings, L.S. Clasen, J.N. Giedd, and S.J. Blakemore, 2014; and 3) N.L. Schramm, R.E. Egli, and D.G. Winder, 2002, via Synapse magazine, courtesy of Wiley-Liss, Inc.

Your Face Scares Me: Understanding the Hyperrational Adolescent Brain

Take off your snarky hat. Adolescents get a bad rap, says Dr. Daniel Siegel, and he should know. He’s a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center, Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, Executive Director of the American Psychiatric Association, and author of many books, videos, and articles on the mind. Despite his endless awards and titles, Siegel displays in lectures the warm avuncularity of James Taylor in an off-the-rack suit as he urges parents and educators to stop viewing adolescence as a grim and crazed space that kids need to cross through quickly. Why? Because teens will perceive these attitudes and act accordingly.

Siegel’s recent and sobering book, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, relies on recent neurobiology research to explain how the mind works during adolescence, the ages between 12 and 24. It’s not just adding five years onto a ten-year-old’s brain, he says. Teenagers get a whole new brain. More to the point, his book sensibly frames how adolescents’ brain developments and concomitant personality traits serve a grand purpose — preparation to leave the nest.

According to Siegel, there are several unique features of the adolescent mind that deserve the awareness of teachers who “alloparent” (perform parenting duties without technically being a guardian).

Wait 90 Seconds

Fact:

The brain’s emotional system is more active during adolescence than at any other stage of life. So what? Shown a photo of a neutral face, an adult’s reasoning prefrontal cortex is activated, whereas the same photo lights up the emotional amygdala of the teen brain. Consequently adolescents may feel complete conviction that a neutral face is hostile or that an innocent remark is aggressive. It’s the lower limbic system getting braced to face the outside world.

Application:

When a teen over-reacts and blows attitude your way, try not to take it personally. Matching a student’s fire with our own — “Jeremy! Take that attitude outside!” — can escalate the threat level, thereby triggering the adolescent’s “fight, flee, freeze, or faint” response. Instead, wait 90 seconds — the amount of time it takes for spiky emotions to subside. Then say, “I felt some heat back there. Can you name what you were feeling?” Brain studies show that naming emotions activates the prefrontal cortex and calms emotions. So name it to tame it.

I’m So Bored . . . That’s Fantastic!

Fact:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps to control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Baseline levels of dopamine are lowest during adolescence, but its ecstasy-triggering release in response to “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” and novelty, giggling, texting, chocolate cake, rugby, and risk, is higher than at any other stage of human development. If adolescents didn’t experience such grinding boredom living in mom’s Tribeca brownstone, they’d never leave to major in ecogastronomy, be all they can be, climb Mt. Rainier, and ride a bus for two days to see Deadmau5.

Unfortunately, increased reward drive can lead to what is often incorrectly categorized as impulsivity. A better term would be “hyperrationality,” or examining the facts of a situation and placing more “weight on the calculated benefits of an action than on the potential risks of that action.”

This played out for me in the 1980s when my parents took a trip, leaving me home for the summer. My teen brain decided that eating nothing more than three cups of Rice Krispies with skim milk each day would be a good way to lose weight. I realized this was not a healthy choice, but the benefits and originality of my solution for quickly shedding pounds overrode the headaches, mouth lesions, and two contiguous bouts of strep throat that followed. When my parents returned home, they found me woozy with hunger, and ordered me to eat a PB&J sandwich. I protested for an hour because, duh, my plan was working — and then finally relented.

Application:

Saying “no” does not counter hyperrationality. Scare tactics, admonishments, and medical information didn’t curb teen smoking, says Siegel. “The strategy that worked was to inform them about how the adults who owned the cigarette companies were brainwashing them so they could get their money.” Instead of negatively directing adolescents to abandon their risky plans, Siegel says, respect their goals, and then suggest alternative boundary-pushing actions. Example: “Todd, wanting to modify your appearance is natural, but how about swimming for an hour every day this summer? Most of your friends would find it too challenging, but they’d be impressed by how you accomplished your goal and grew muscle.”

Siegel also recommends having adolescents put their hands on their chest and their stomach to become aware of the neural networks surrounding intestines (“gut feeling”) and the heart (“heartfelt feelings”), and counter hyperrationality with intuition. Ask, “What does your heart and gut tell you about that plan?”

The Holy Grail of Brain Development

Neural integration, linking areas of the brain so that more sophisticated functions emerge, writes Siegel, is the most important concept in brain development. But 98 percent of schools don’t use one of the most effective strategies for achieving this integration, as well as recalibrating adolescents’ emotional reactivity and countering hyperrationality. Through mental trainingfor 12 minutes a day, adolescents can stimulate the growth of myelin sheaths that make their neural networks more efficient. Mental training can also lead to feeling more engaged, receptive, resourceful, and adaptive — ideal traits for learning how to develop resilience and efficacy.

What unique features of teenage brain activity have you experienced at your school?

Why Social Media is Not Smart for Middle School Kids

Psychology Today

Tween’ brains are simply too immature to use social media wisely.

This guest post is by Melanie Hempe, RN, founder of Families Managing Media

interstid/Shutterstock
Source: interstid/Shutterstock

I really love middle school kids. I have two of them! If you have been through middle-school parenting, you may have noticed what I see: Strange things seem to happen to a tween’s brain the first day they walk into middle school.

One might sum up their main goals in life this way:

  • To be funny at all costs. (Hence, the silly bathroom jokes, talking at inappropriate times in class, and the “anything it takes to be popular” attitude.)
  • To focus on SELF — their clothes, their nose, their body, and their hair.
  • To try new things. They are playing “dress up” with their identity, trying on things to see what fits. They are impulsive and scattered, they are up and they are down, and it even seems that they have regressed in their development on their quest for independence.

As the parent, you are changing, too, as you enter the stage of parenting when you quickly depart from the naïve platform of “My child would never…” to the realization that, “I’m sure my child did that. I’m sorry, and please excuse his behavior, he is going through a phase.”

Your list of daily parenting instruction may include statements like:

  • “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!”
  • “How many times do I have to tell you not the use that word?”
  • “Stop flipping that bottle!”
  • “Stop burping the ABC’s!”
  • “You’re acting like a two-year-old.”
  • “What were you thinking?”

Then it happens: Maybe because we are exhausted from their constant begging for a phone, or because we think that all their friends have one, or because we want to upgrade ours to the latest model…we cave. We act on impulse. Our brain seems to regress like theirs, and we give them our old smartphone.

And with that one little decision comes the world of social media access—something we haven’t thought about and something none of us is prepared for. Because the midbrain is reorganizing itself and risk-taking is high and impulse control is low, I can’t imagine a worse time in a child’s life to have access to social media than middle school. Here are just a few reasons why:

  1. Social media was not designed for them. A tween’s underdeveloped frontal cortex can’t manage the distraction nor the temptations that come with social media use. While you start teaching responsible use of tech now, know that you will not be able to teach the maturity that social media requires. Like trying to make clothes fit that are way too big, they will use social media inappropriately until they are older and it fits them better.
  2. Social media is an entertainment technology. It does not make your child smarter or more prepared for real life or a future job; nor is it necessary for healthy social development. It is pure entertainment attached to a marketing platform extracting bits and pieces of personal information and preferences from your child every time they use it, not to mention hours of their time and attention.
  3. A tween’s “more is better” mentality is a dangerous match for social media. Do they really have 1,456 friends? Do they really need to be on it nine hours a day? Social media allows (and encourages) them to overdo their friend connections like they tend to overdo other things in their lives.
  4. Social media is an addictive form of screen entertainment. And, like video game addiction, early use can set up future addiction patterns and habits.
  5. Social media replaces learning the hard social “work” of dealing face-to-face with peers, a skill that they will need to practice to be successful in real life.
  6. Social media can cause teens to lose connection with family and instead view “friends” as their foundation. Since the cognitive brain is still being formed, the need for your teen to be attached to your family is just as important now as when they were younger. Make sure that attachment is strong. While they need attachments to their friends, they need healthy family attachment more.
  7. Social media use represents lost potential for teens. While one can argue that there are certain benefits of social media for teens, the costs are very high during the teen years when their brain development is operating at peak performance for learning new things. It is easy for teens to waste too much of their time and too much of their brain in a digital world. We know from many studies that it is nearly impossible for them to balance it all.

How Can Kids Slow Down?

First, we need to slow down and rethink what we are allowing our kids to do. We need to understand the world of social media and how teens use it differently from adults. Here are a few tips that work well for many parents.

  1. Delay access. The longer parents delay access, the more time a child will have to mature so that he or she can use technology more wisely as a young adult. Delaying access also places a greater importance on developing personal authentic relationships first.
  2. Follow their accounts. Social media privacy is a lie: Nothing is private in the digital world, and so it should not be private to parents. Make sure privacy settings are in place but know that those settings can give you a false sense of security. Encourage your teen to have private conversations in person or via a verbal phone call instead if they don’t want you to read it on social media.
  3. Create family accounts. Create family accounts instead of individual teen accounts. This allows kids to keep up with friends in a safer social media environment.
  4. Allow social media only on large screens. Allow your teens to only use their social media accounts on home computers or laptops in plain view, this way they will use it less. When it is used on a small private phone screen they can put in their pocket there are more potential problems with reckless use.  The more secret the access, the more potential for bad choices.
  5. Keep a sharp eye on the clock; they will not. Do you know how much time your child spends on social media a day? Be aware of this, and reduce the amount of time your child is on social media across all platforms. The average teen spends nine hours a day connected to social media. Instead, set one time each day for three days a week for your child to check their social media. Do they benefit from more time than that?
  6. Plan face-to-face time with their friends. Remember that they don’t need 842 friends; four-to-six close friends are enough for healthy social development. Help them learn how to plan real, in-person, social get-togethers such as a leave-phones-at-the-door party, a home movie night, bowling, board games, cooking pizza, or hosting a bonfire. They crave these social gatherings so encourage them to invite friends over and help them (as needed) to organize the event.
  7. Spend more real non-tech time together. Teens who are strongly attached to their parents and family show more overall happiness and success in life. They still need us now more than ever. It is easy to detach from them: Teens can be annoying! But attaching to family allows them to detach from the social media drama. Your child needs to feel like they can come home and leave the drama of their social world behind for a few hours. They want you to help them say no to social media and yes to more time with the family. They are craving those moments to disconnect, so make plans and encourage this at home.

Don’t give that smartphone all the power in your home; help tweens choose healthier forms of entertainment. They have the rest of their life to be entertained by social media, but only a limited time with you.

For more tools to help balance social media use from Families Managing Media, click here

To learn how to reverse the dysregulating effects of screen-time on your child’s mood, focus, and behavior, see Reset Your Child’s Brain.  

Why Multilingual People Have Healthier, More Engaged Brains

Prior to the 1960s, scientists thought children who spoke more than one language had a handicap for learning because they had to spend too much time distinguishing between languages. With more modern brain imaging technology, researchers can now see how multilingualism actually strengthens the brain. People who speak more than one language have a higher density of gray matter that contains most of the brains neurons and synapses.

Scientists are also beginning to distinguish between young children who grow up learning and speaking two languages as compared to those who learn a second language in adulthood. Children use both hemispheres of the brain to acquire language, which means they often grasp the emotional implications of language more deeply. In contrast, adults who learned a second language tend to approach problems presented to them in that language in a more rational, detached way. Scientists hypothesize that it’s because adults often acquire language through the left hemisphere of the brain.

Learn more about the fascinating brain research around multilingualism from this TED-Ed video and the accompanying lesson plans. Many classrooms are filled with students who speak more than one language and they should know that ability is a great strength.

What’s the Right Age for a Child to Get a Smartphone?

The New York Times
Tech Fix
By BRIAN X. CHEN JULY 20, 2016

21TECHFIX-master768

Teachers and students pulled out their smartphones when President Obama visited Mooresville Middle School in Mooresville, N.C., in 2013. On average, children are getting their first smartphones around age 10. Credit Jewel Samad/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
NOT long ago, many parents wondered at what age they should give their child full access to the car keys. Nowadays, parents face a trickier question: At what age should a child own a smartphone?

The smartphone, after all, is the key to unfettered access to the internet and the many benefits and dangers that come with it. But unlike driving a car, which is legal in some states starting at the age of 16, there is no legal guideline for a parent to determine when a child may be ready for a smartphone.

The topic is being increasingly debated as children get smartphones at an ever younger age. On average, children are getting their first smartphones around age 10, according to the research firm Influence Central, down from age 12 in 2012. For some children, smartphone ownership starts even sooner — including second graders as young as 7, according to internet safety experts.

“I think that age is going to trend even younger, because parents are getting tired of handing their smartphones to their kids,” said Stacy DeBroff, chief executive of Influence Central.

The downward age creep is meeting resistance. James P. Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that reviews content and products for families, has a strict rule for his family: His children get a smartphone only when they start high school — after they have learned restraint and the value of face-to-face communication.

But Mr. Steyer added that other parents might decide that their children are ready sooner. “No two kids are the same, and there’s no magic number,” he said. “A kid’s age is not as important as his or her own responsibility or maturity level.”

So how do you determine the right time? To come up with some guidelines, I interviewed internet safety experts and combed through studies on smartphone use among children. I also asked for parents’ advice on regulating smartphone use and keeping children safe.

The takeaway will not please smartphone makers: The longer you wait to give your children a smartphone, the better. Some experts said 12 was the ideal age, while others said 14. All agreed later was safer because smartphones can be addictive distractions that detract from schoolwork while exposing children to issues like online bullies, child predators or sexting.

“The longer you keep Pandora’s box shut, the better off you are,” said Jesse Weinberger, an internet safety speaker based in Ohio who gives presentations to parents, schools and law enforcement officials. “There’s no connection to the dark side without the device.”

The Research

Let’s start with some of the data. Ms. Weinberger, who wrote the smartphone and internet safety book “The Boogeyman Exists: And He’s in Your Child’s Back Pocket,” said she had surveyed 70,000 children in the last 18 months and found that, on average, sexting began in the fifth grade, pornography consumption began when children turned 8, and pornography addiction began around age 11.

In a separate study published this year, Common Sense Media polled 1,240 parents and children and found 50 percent of the children admitted that they were addicted to their smartphones. It also found that 66 percent of parents felt their children used mobile devices too much, and 52 percent of children agreed. About 36 percent of parents said they argued with their children daily about device use.

There is also biology to consider. The prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that controls impulse, finishes developing in the mid-20s. In other words, parents should not be surprised if younger children with smartphones lack impulse control.

Pros and Cons

Smartphones undoubtedly bring benefits. With the devices, children gain access to powerful apps, including education tools for studying, chat apps for connecting with friends and the wealth of information on the web.

But they also are one step closer to distracting games, sexting apps and social media apps where online bullies are on the prowl. Even older children are not immune: Last year, at least 100 students at a Colorado high school were embroiled in a scandal that involved trading naked pictures of themselves on their mobile devices.

In the end, such cons may outweigh the pros, Ms. Weinberger said. If you hold off giving smartphones to children, many still have access to technology tools through devices like computers and tablets, she added. The main difference with a smartphone is that it is with a child everywhere, including outside of parental supervision.

Teaching Responsibility

Ultimately, parents will determine when their child truly needs a smartphone. When that time comes, there are approaches for testing the waters before handing one to the child.

One popular option is to start the child off with dumbed-down mobile devices, like feature phones that can only send text messages or place phone calls, and to assess whether they can use those devices responsibly.

Lynn Muscat, a parent in San Francisco, said she had considered buying a “dumb phone” for her 10-year-old son to keep in touch while he was at summer camp. She ended up buying the LG GizmoGadget, a Verizon smartwatch that has calling and texting capabilities and a locked-down list of contacts so that her son could interact only with people she had approved.

Ms. Muscat said she did not consider buying her child a smartphone partly because she felt the device would make him a target for muggers. She also was not appreciative of how smartphones had affected other children around him.

“It drives me nuts when I see his friends on it all the time — it seems very antisocial,” Ms. Muscat said. She said she planned to use the smartwatch to teach the responsibilities of using a mobile device safely before her son eventually earns the privilege of carrying a smartphone.

When you decide that it’s time to bestow a smartphone on your child, there are ways to set limits. To help parents enforce rules consistently, Ms. Weinberger has published a family contract listing the rules of smartphone use, which includes promises never to take nude selfies and never to try to meet strangers from the internet in real life. Parents state what the consequences are for breaking the rules, and the child must sign the contract before receiving a smartphone.

Mr. Steyer of Common Sense Media said he set other limits, like no smartphones at the dinner table and no phones in the classroom. If his children break the rules, he takes their phones away.

Parental Controls

There are some phone settings that can help keep children safe when they do get smartphones.

For iPhones, Apple offers a switchboard full of features that parents can enable or disable, including the ability to restrict the Safari browser from gaining access to adult content and the ability to prevent apps from using cellular data. The iPhone’s parental controls live inside the Settings app in a menu labeled Restrictions.

Android phones lack similar built-in parental control settings, though there are many apps in the Google Play app store that let parents add restrictions. Ms. Weinberger highlighted the app Qustodio, which lets parents monitor their children’s text messages, disable apps at certain times of day or even shut off a smartphone remotely. While that can be an aggressive approach to restricting a child’s smartphone, Ms. Weinberger said her job as a parent was not to make her children like her.

“My only job as a parent is to prepare you for the day you leave,” she said. “If that’s the case, I have to keep you safe, and you’re not going to like some of the things I say — and that’s O.K.”

Raising Teenagers: Protect When You Must, Permit When You Can

The New York Times Motherlode Blog

CreditJessica Lahey

I don’t think this comes as news to anyone here, but it can be a real challenge to parent and to educate adolescents. My own specimens (boys, 11 and 15) spend their days vacillating between energetic and catatonic, optimistic and morose, ebullient and apathetic. Some days, I doubt that they will be able to forge a safe and successful path into adulthood without my constant help and intervention.

Fortunately, Dr. Laurence Steinberg says this is not the case. In his new book, “Age of Opportunity: Lesson From the New Science of Adolescence” Dr. Steinberg explains that sure, adolescence is challenging, but it is also a time of great opportunity. I loved the book, so I reached out to him and asked for advice on how to best parent and to teach adolescents. His take? Given some information about how the adolescent brain is wired, and a few tips on how to parent children who can have trouble accessing their reserves of self-control and motivation, the children will be all right.

First, a primer on the adolescent brain. While human brains reach their full size by age 10, that brain is far from fully cooked, neurologically speaking. Adolescence is a time of an extraordinary reorganization of resources in the brain, particularly with respect to the prefrontal cortex, the center of self-regulation, and the limbic system, the seat of emotion. Dr. Steinberg suggests that we view adolescent brain development in three overlapping stages:

1. Starting the engines: When puberty first hits, the limbic system becomes more easily aroused, and young teenagers can shift between extreme, euphoric highs and unpredictable, precipitous lows.

2. Developing a better braking system: During middle adolescence, the prefrontal cortex slowly inches toward maturity, which will eventually allow teenagers to master self-control, and yes, they will return to a more reasonable and mature cognitive and emotional state.

3. Putting a skilled driver behind the wheel: Once the brakes of self-control are functional, it’s a matter of fine-tuning, of practicing until those brakes work every time, in all conditions.

There is not much we can do to rush this process of neurological maturation along, but what parents and teachers can do is to help children practice their burgeoning skills of self-control as they emerge. The children who are most likely to emerge from adolescence with a strong sense of self-control, motivation and competence, Dr. Steinberg writes, are those who have been parented according to three goals: warmth, firmness and support. Children raised by warm, firm and supportive parents – what Dr. Steinberg refers to as “authoritative” parenting – emerge from adolescence with more well-honed skills of self-regulation, and are much less likely to fall victim to delinquency, addiction, obesity and premarital pregnancy.

Dr. Steinberg provides the following prescription for helping children navigate adolescence and figure out how regulate their feelings, thoughts and behaviors:

Be Warm. Warm parents react to children’s emotional needs so they can muster the bravery required to function away from parents, under their own initiative. Warm parents are affectionate. They show their children that they not only understand their emotional needs, but also will respond to them. They provide a safe haven and are involved in their child’s life.

Be Firm. Firm parents establish clear rules, even clearer expectations, and predictable consequences. Most importantly, they follow through with those consequences when expectations are not met. “Children acquire self-control by taking the rules that their parents have imposed on them and imposing them on themselves,” Dr. Steinberg writes. Firm parents are consistent and fair, explain their rules and decisions, and avoid harsh punishment that is out of scale with the wrongs committed.

Be Supportive. The best way to support children is by “scaffolding,” Dr. Steinberg writes. Scaffolding is just what it sounds like; the supports parents erect around our children should support them only as much as they require, and as they become better at managing themselves, those external controls should come down. Parents who set children up to succeed, praise efforts rather than outcomes, help them think through their own decisions rather than making decisions for them, and refrain from being overly intrusive, will be able to dismantle those parenting supports gradually, and as they do so, their children will find that they are capable of standing tall on their own without crumbling when the world shakes them up a little bit.

I don’t think adolescence will ever be easy, either for my boys or for me, but I am trying to keep up my end of the deal by removing one piece of their scaffolding, every day. When my older son violates curfew, or my younger son takes off into the woods with my saw and his knife to whittle a staff out of a sapling, I look to my favorite piece of advice from Dr. Steinberg’s book, propped up in the back of my desk: “Protect when you must, but permit when you can.” Because that, I can do.

The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain

Foreword Book Reviews

This owner’s manual lets teens kick the tires as they learn to drive their new-model brains.

The Owner’s Manual for Driving Your Adolescent Brain offers fun-filled, easy-to-understand information about how the brain works, grows, and develops to help young people successfully navigate through the challenging years from ages ten to twenty.

Adolescence is a highly dynamic developmental period, and the brain is the body’s most dynamic, and mysterious, organ. Psychologists JoAnn and Terrence Deak use ordinary concepts and language along with scientific terms to explain the various parts of the brain and how they interact with each other, using an analogy that many adolescents understand: the way a car works and the care it needs to operate at its best.

Freya Harrison’s lively, colorful illustrations add a touch of whimsy that greatly enhances the text, and fun science facts keep the reader enjoyably engaged. For example, did you know that if the cell body of a single neuron in your spinal cord that is about one hundred microns in diameter (about the size of a pinhead) were the size of a baseball, its axon would be nearly 2,416 feet long? That’s “eight times as tall as the Statue of Liberty, twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower, and almost as high as the tallest skyscraper on Earth.”

The Deaks also tackle some of the more troublesome aspects of adolescence, including the strong, and sometimes misguided, drive for independence and the emotional turbulence that characterize this time of life. Understanding that the brain’s different structures develop and mature at different rates, with the cerebral cortex (which participates in complex decision-making) not fully developed until adulthood, can help teens appreciate why they may need guidance from mature adults when it comes to making important decisions.

Learning that regular exercise supercharges the brain might lead even the most sedentary teen to frequent the gym or take up a sport. And understanding that, until the prefrontal cortex is fully mature, young people will have the tendency to act impulsively or engage in risky behaviors may help to protect them from making and acting upon some bad decisions; they may even find it easier to ask the advice of a trusted adult before their immature brain leads them astray. While geared to adolescents, parents and other adults who work with youth may find much to appreciate and enjoy in this manual on the care of their charges’ “grey matter.”

JoAnn Deak is an educator and preventive psychologist. Terrence Deak is a professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience at Binghamton University in upstate New York, where he runs an active neuroscience laboratory.

The authors make it clear that, no matter which types of life decisions adolescents must face, the choice always remains in their own hands. This respectful acknowledgment, together with the admission that making good decisions isn’t always easy, can help young people understand, and accept, both their limitations and their power.

Kristine Morris

My Amygdala Ate My Homework! The adolescent brain is long on intellect but short on judgment

Rewire Me

BY LAUNA SCHWEIZER ON SEPTEMBER 6, 2013

My Amygdala Ate My HomeworkWhen I arrive at my job, several people run to the door to hug me. During each day, at least one person falls out of her chair, someone bursts into tears, and several people fail to complete their assignments. My co-workers drop food on the carpet, flip upside down into headstands, and make fart jokes. Half of them interrupt me with off-topic remarks, and the other half sit in sullen silence. Sometimes they pick the keys off our shared computers.

I wish I were kidding.

Any sane person who worked with people like these might quit. But in my world, this is not only normal but downright healthy. The people I work with are middle school students, and I am the guardian of minds and souls under construction.

The typical adolescent brain has plenty of power. Studies have demonstrated that most normally developing brains achieve intellectual maturity around age 15 or 16. Kids this age feel smart, hence the sassing back, the insufferable rolling of the eyes, and their confidence in their ideas, no matter how poor their actual judgment.While they can be unpredictable in their oddities, my students are also interesting, lively, and brilliant. My work is to accept them as they are, while also helping them grow into everything they can be.

Patience, emotional stability, and flexibility are essentials in my job, but a solid understanding of neuroscience is my sharpest tool. Neuroscientist JoAnn Deak refers to teachers as “neurosculptors” because everything we do—or fail to do—as educators has a long-term impact on our students’ brains.

I stretch my students as much as I can, because the more they do now, the more they will be able to do later in life. During these years, it is truly use it or lose it.

However, while Deak encourages me to feed their intellects, her work has also helped explain my students’ impulsivity and inconsistent decision making, enabling me to develop realistic expectations for their reactions. Now, when I start to utter that classic adult scold: “You should know better!” I check myself, and recognize: actually, they don’t. That’s why they need adults who care in all the right ways.

Mature brains make good decisions when three brain regions work together smoothly. The amygdala initiates a choice, signaling with caveman-like insistence that it is time to do something. It grunts at the cerebral cortex, the eager nerd in our brains, to generate plans and ideas for how to get that something done. Those signals are sorted by the frontal cortex, the bossy front-office executive, that part of our brain that makes the final call about which something is likely to work best—or which somethings seem like a great idea but really must be avoided at all costs.

The typical adolescent brain has plenty of power. Studies have demonstrated that most normally developing brains achieve intellectual maturity around age 15 or 16. Kids this age feel smart, hence the sassing back, the insufferable rolling of the eyes, and their confidence in their ideas, no matter how poor their actual judgment. Adolescents rightly enjoy their intellectual power, even as their ideas are flying off in all directions.

And this is where patience, flexibility, and emotional stability come in. We, the adults in the adolescents’ lives, have to impose judgment from the outside—yet without squashing all the learning, growth, and energy germinating within.However, the kids in my class (I must remind myself over and over) also have a newly empowered amygdala. The amygdala is a primal, deep-brain structure that cues aggression and fear, but is also crucial to the most basic sort of learning: fear conditioning. Recent MRI studies have demonstrated a swelling in the amygdala starting six months before puberty shows itself. Other studies find that the kids with the largest amygdalae argue more with their mothers. Again, I wish I were kidding.

Smart brain. Intense emotional learning. Only one problem: because the cortex develops from back to front, my students’ full-speed-ahead brains are operating without adequate judgment. The amygdala is shouting at the cortex, “DO something!” The cortex fires off lots of powerful ideas in response. But there is precious little activity in the front of the brain, where wisdom and judgment will one day reside. Hence their occasional brilliance and their equally frequent missteps.

And this is where patience, flexibility, and emotional stability come in. We, the adults in the adolescents’ lives, have to impose judgment from the outside—yet without squashing all the learning, growth, and energy germinating within. My kids need the highest expectations and the most enormous patience I can provide.

– See more at: http://www.rewireme.com/explorations/my-amygdala-ate-my-homework/#comment-4818

Brain, Interrupted

Brain, Interrupted, The New York Times

By Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson | New York Times – Tue, May 7, 2013

  • Yahoo! Finance/Getty Images –

Technology has given us many gifts, among them dozens of new ways to grab our attention. It’s hard to talk to a friend without your phone buzzing at least once. Odds are high you will check your Twitter feed or Facebook wall while reading this article. Just try to type a memo at work without having an e-mail pop up that ruins your train of thought.

But what constitutes distraction? Does the mere possibility that a phone call or e-mail will soon arrive drain your brain power? And does distraction matter — do interruptions make us dumber? Quite a bit, according to new research by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

There’s a lot of debate among brain researchers about the impact of gadgets on our brains. Most discussion has focused on the deleterious effect of multitasking. Early results show what most of us know implicitly: if you do two things at once, both efforts suffer.

In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a meeting is really doing something called “rapid toggling between tasks,” and is engaged in constant context switching.

As economics students know, switching involves costs. But how much? When a consumer switches banks, or a company switches suppliers, it’s relatively easy to count the added expense of the hassle of change. When your brain is switching tasks, the cost is harder to quantify.

There have been a few efforts to do so: Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, foundthat a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. But there has been scant research on the quality of work done during these periods of rapid toggling.

We decided to investigate further, and asked Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology, and the psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon to design an experiment to measure the brain power lost when someone is interrupted.

To simulate the pull of an expected cellphone call or e-mail, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test. In the experiment, 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects; one merely completed the test. The other two were told they “might be contacted for further instructions” at any moment via instant message.

During an initial test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. Then a second test was administered, but this time, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came. Let’s call the three groups Control, Interrupted and On High Alert.

We expected the Interrupted group to make some mistakes, but the results were truly dismal, especially for those who think of themselves as multitaskers: during this first test, both interrupted groups answered correctly 20 percent less often than members of the control group.

In other words, the distraction of an interruption, combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption, made our test takers 20 percent dumber. That’s enough to turn a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent).

But in Part 2 of the experiment, the results were not as bleak. This time, part of the group was told they would be interrupted again, but they were actually left alone to focus on the questions.

Again, the Interrupted group underperformed the control group, but this time they closed the gap significantly, to a respectable 14 percent. Dr. Peer said this suggested that people who experience an interruption, and expect another, can learn to improve how they deal with it.

But among the On High Alert group, there was a twist. Those who were warned of an interruption that never came improved by a whopping 43 percent, and even outperformed the control test takers who were left alone. This unexpected, counterintuitive finding requires further research, but Dr. Peer thinks there’s a simple explanation: participants learned from their experience, and their brains adapted.

Somehow, it seems, they marshaled extra brain power to steel themselves against interruption, or perhaps the potential for interruptions served as a kind of deadline that helped them focus even better.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford sociologist who conducted some of the first tests on multitasking, has said that those who can’t resist the lure of doing two things at once are “suckers for irrelevancy.” There is some evidence that we’re not just suckers for that new text message, or addicted to it; it’s actually robbing us of brain power, too. Tweet about this at your own risk.

What the Carnegie Mellon study shows, however, is that it is possible to train yourself for distractions, even if you don’t know when they’ll hit.

Bob Sullivan, a journalist at NBC News, and Hugh Thompson, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, are the authors of “The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck to Success.”

Bilingual Brains – Smarter and Faster

Psychology Today

Published on November 22, 2012 by Dr. Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed. in Radical Teaching

By Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed.

A Gift Parents Can Give Children that Money Can’t Buy

Recent studies of children who grow up in bilingual settings reveal advantages over single language children, including both increased attentive focus and cognition. The findings correlate with prefrontal cortex brain activity networks, which direct the highest levels of thinking and awareness.

 

Compared to monolinguals, the studied bilingual children, who had had five to ten years of bilingual exposure, averaged higher scores in cognitive performance on tests and had greater attention focus, distraction resistance, decision-making, judgment and responsiveness to feedback. The correlated neuroimaging (fMRI scans) of these children revealed greater activity in the prefrontal cortex networks directing these and other executive functions. (Bialystok, 2009; Kaushanskaya & Marian, 2007).

 

This increased executive function activation in the brains of children in bilingual settings extends beyond the translation of language intake and output. The powerful implications of the new research are about brainpower enhanced by growing up bilingual.

The Brain’s CEO is a Late Bloomer

 

The networks that appear more active in the brains of bilingual children are part of the brain’s CEO networks, called executive functions. These are a constellation of cognitive abilities that support goal-oriented behavior including directing attentive focus, prioritizing, planning, self-monitoring, inhibitory control, judgment, working memory (maintenance and manipulation of information), and analysis.

 

It is not during the first months or even years of life that the brain undergoes its greatest changes with regard to cognition. These neural networks of executive functions are the last regions of the brain to “mature” as recognized by the pruning of unused circuits and the myelination of the most active networks that as they become stronger and more efficient.

Executive functions such as selective attentive focus and the ability to block out distraction are typically minimally developed in childhood. These functions gradually become stronger throughout the years of prefrontal cortex maturation into the mid twenties. It is with regard to these executive functions that research about the “bilingual brain” is particularly exciting.

What is Happening in the Brains in Bilingual Settings?

 

This aspect of bilingual research has focused on bilingual upbringing with one language spoken at home that is not the same as the dominant language of the country. The interpretations of researchers, such as Ellen Bialystok who compared responses of 6-year olds from bilingual and monolingual homes, suggest the bilingual brain is highly engaged in the cognitive challenge of evaluating between the two competing language systems. This requires executive function attention selecting and focusing on the language being used while intentionally inhibiting the activity of the competing language system.

 

When bilingual brains evaluate language, control and storage networks of both their languages are active and available. This ongoing processing, that seems instantaneous, is not reflexive or unconscious. It requires deliberate focus of attention on specific input and withholding of focus from simultaneous distracting input to analyze the language being used. Their brains need to evaluate and determine not only the meaning of words, but also which patterns of sentence structure and grammar apply and recognize nuances of pronunciation unique to the language of focus.

 

Bialystok describes this massive activity as exercising the executive functions early in bilinguals at work to decipher these multiple codes within each language. These control networks make choices, such as which memory storage circuits are the language-correct ones to activate from which to select the correct word, syntax, and pronunciation. The choices are demanding of a CEO that can simultaneously direct where ongoing new input is sent for successful evaluation and activate the correct language storage banks to use for response. These executive functions simultaneously coordinate the evaluation of the content of the messages and direct the response to that information.

Implications for Brighter Starts

 

One of the most significant implications of the bilingual research is the recognition that even very young children’s executive functions appear responsive to exercise which strengthens them for future use. An example from the research is these children’s higher scores on cognitive testing.

 

This incoming research supports encouraging parents to retain use of their native language in the home, but too often, social pressures and mistaken beliefs often limit children benefiting from the bilingual brain booster.

 

One problem is parents concern that exposure to one language is less confusing for children. When I taught fifth grade in a school where most of the students’ primary language was Spanish, I recall recently immigrated parents of my students telling me that although they were just learning English, they tried to only speak English at home with their children. They felt that would help their children learn English more successfully and believed that exposure to two languages would be confusing and make the transition to their new schools more difficult.

 

Another issue limiting the bilingual experiences was children’s desire to fit in. As my students’ English fluency improved, they would sometimes be asked by their parents to translate from English to Spanish during school conferences or meetings. When they did so, such as during “Back to School Night”, many were clearly embarrassed that their parents didn’t speak English and even tried to avoid having classmates hear them speak Spanish to their parents. When I would ask them about their reluctance, some would tell me that it made their parents seem “ignorant” when they did not speak English. My urging of parents to sustain the bilingual experience by speaking Spanish with their children in the home was thus resisted as children began to develop this bias against their native language.

 

The mistaken parental beliefs about confusing the brain with two languages and the response to their children’s negative responses to their native language cause these children to miss out on a unique and powerful opportunity to strengthen their highest cognitive brain potentials. One intervention educators and others in the community can do to avoid loss of the bilingual boost is to explain to new immigrants about the research and the strong impact they can have on their children’s academic success by retaining their native language in the home.

 

The other intervention is to lay to rest the mistaken assumption that the brain has limitations that are overwhelmed with duel language exposure. The more we learn about neuroplasticity, the more it appears the reverse is true. Experiences with new domains of challenge in general seem to strengthen the brain’s executive functions and cognition. This is evident on neuroimaging as well as in performance on the cognitive testing, reading comprehension, and success learning subsequent new languages. New challenges that include the use of judgment, analysis, deduction, translation, prioritizing, attention focusing, inhibitory control, delayed gratification, and pursuit of long-term goals are associated with increasing the number, strength, and efficiency of the executive function networks.

 

Just like our muscles become stronger with physical workouts, the developing brains of children in bilingual environments appear to build strength, speed, and efficiency in their executive function networks. This is the “neurons that fire together, wire together” phenomenon that in response to the electrical activations of messages traveling through them when used, executive function networks develop stronger connections – dendrites, synapses, and myelinated axons.

For now, it appears that when families have another language that can be spoken in the home where children are being raised it could be an opportunity to both enrich their language skills and also provide a cognitive boost for their highest brain networks of executive functions.

The implications of the bilingual research raise considerations of what other early exposures before and during school years can be designed to promote these executive function activations in all children. What are the implications regarding introducing second languages to young children from monolingual homes? Perhaps grandparents, nannies, friendships with families who speak another language could spend time with the children, or parents could participate in parent-child language classes suitable for youngsters such as learning and singing songs with movements in another language.

 

Does the bilingual benefit on cognition also work on older children and adults who learn second languages to the point of fluency? I’ll address some of these questions in my next blog, including the relationship of executive function activation and building new networks of learning with reduction in the manifestations of cognitive degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.