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  • Everything you know about teenage brains is bullshit

    Everything you know about teenage brains is bullshit

    Kathryn Mills reports that discussion has become dominated by unconvincing 'experts' and scaremongering. The evidence is not in.

    Forget what you've heard. We don't know much about how Internet use affects the brain.

    After years of being told that the Internet was rotting my brain, I decided to assess the damage by gathering the scientific evidence. My review of the published scientific literature found no evidence that typical Internet use harms the adolescent brain.

    I'm a neuroscience student researching human brain development, specifically during the teen years. Our brain undergoes a lot of changes between childhood and adulthood, and the lab I work in is interested in how these changes relate to our ability to navigate the social world. It's fun work, especially because many people seem to be as interested in learning about the teen brain as I am.

    Whenever I present my research to groups of parents or teachers, I'm usually asked a version of the question: "How are digital technologies affecting teenagers' brains?" Until I conducted this review, I would normally respond with a cautious, slightly dismissive, and utterly unhelpful answer: "We don't know."

    Ways of knowing

    Teachers possess valuable knowledge about young people and generational trends. Over 2,000 American middle and high school teachers responded to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center asking them how they felt the Internet (and other digital technologies) were affecting their students. The majority of teachers (87%) felt that Internet use was creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans,” and 88% felt that “today’s students have fundamentally different cognitive skills because of the digital technologies they have grown up with.”

    While surveys can tell us about how people perceive the world, the scientific method allows us to test these observations for their validity. As E. O. Wilson said, "the heart of the scientific method is the reduction of perceived phenomena to fundamental, testable principles." With this in mind, I set out to review the scientific evidence for the Internet's impact on the brain--specifically the teenage brain. However, to do so I had to first figure out how to define Internet use.

    The Internet

    What does it mean to use the Internet? The Pew Research Center estimates around 87% of adults and 95% of teens in America are users. But Internet use is made up of multiple activities, and is different from video game use, computer use and screen time (all of which can occur offline). One of the most important parts of the scientific process is defining your variable of interest. For the purposes of this review, I defined Internet use as activities such as information gathering, entertainment, and communication accessed through the medium of the World Wide Web.

    What I found

    To find out if any scientific research had been conducted on this topic, I performed a simple search in the largest biomedical database for studies including the terms internet, adolescence (or teenager), and brain. Then I looked through the 134 results to see if they were actually relevant. Most were not. The two studies I classified as empirical research studies did not measure brain changes in response to Internet use, but included experimental paradigms that could tell us something about the effects of Internet use. The studies that did relate Internet use to brain measures sampled an unrepresentative portion of the population, which means the results of these studies are unlikely to apply to most individuals.

    The keyboard and the damage done

    The Internet is sometimes compared to drugs like heroin, but I think it is much more like coffee (which an estimated 83% of American adults drink). The studies that have investigated the effects of Internet use on the adolescent brain have focused on adolescents experiencing serious problems from their Internet use (sometimes referred to as Pathological Internet Use). It might surprise some to hear that the majority of adolescents (95.6%) do not fall into this category. Most adolescents, like adults, do not experience serious problems from Internet use. We might be using the Internet every day, but most of us are functional users. What this means is that the studies that have shown brain changes in individuals with disordered Internet use do not apply to most adolescents.

    What we do know

    While we may not know much about how the Internet affects brain development, there has been extensive work into how different Internet activities relate to the health and well-being of adolescents. Importantly, it is becoming clear that typical Internet use does not displace time spent doing IRL activities, such as participating in sports and clubs.

    A review conducted five years ago found that communicating with friends through the Internet is related to increased levels of social connectedness in adolescents. And, as I'm sure many readers are already aware, danah boyd has recently written a fantastic book on social media use in adolescence that goes into unprecedented depth on this topic.

    In the review, I describe a few studies that could tell us something about how the Internet might shape our way of interacting with the world. Although these studies cannot tell us if Internet use is creating a generation with “fundamentally different cognitive skills,” they suggest that our way of dealing with information might be changing in a world that favors certain skills.

    Shaping the developing brain

    Repeated experiences in the world will affect neural architecture on some level; such is the nature of our brain. This is true for a human brain of any age. However, the developing brain contains more capacity for change. Since experience partially determines what neural connections are kept and strengthened during adolescence, some adults are concerned that Internet use could be “rewiring” the brains of the current generation. This is exactly the kind of evidence that is lacking.

    While Internet use is almost always thought of as harming the brain, this narrative is not extended to other activities such as musical training. When I conducted a similar search, replacing the term Internet with music, I found quite a few studies examining how musical training relates to changes in brain measures and cognitive abilities in representative populations (non-professionals).

    Perhaps future research examining Internet use can apply similar methods. However, it's important to note that studies showing simple correlations between brain measures and behavior cannot tell us if the behavior caused the change, or if the brain changes relate to well-being. Only longitudinal studies and studies that include measures of functional outcomes (e.g., cognitive measures and measures of well-being) can do that.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence Just to be clear: I am not saying Internet use does not affect the developing brain. I just haven't found evidence to suggest that Internet use has or hasn't had a profound effect on brain development.

    Also, I'm one scientist. It wouldn't surprise me if I missed relevant studies. This is why I am maintaining a list of scientific studies relevant to this topic. If you know of any studies that could be added to this list, please submit them here. That way, whoever writes the next review can incorporate as much evidence as possible.

    Conflict of interest: I grew up on the Internet

    Shortly after I gave a presentation on this topic at the 2014 SXSW Interactive Festival, my mother unearthed this video:

    As you might be able to tell from her hair and voice, my mother spent a lot of time in the late 80s tech-nerd party scene. She's been working with computers for longer than I have been alive. I know I am biased; I think the Internet can't be so bad because I grew up on the Internet.

    Whenever an adult asks me if Internet use is harming the teen brain, I am tempted to reveal that I have been using the Internet since I was 9 years old. I think I'm functional. However, treating anecdote with anecdote isn't going to solve this debate. Also, it's clear that Internet use was a fundamentally different experience back when I was a child (see video).

    Fear of Internet will fade As more digital natives populate science and positions of power, the fear that the Internet is harming the teen brain will fade. A newer technology will replace it. We can combat this endless cycle of technofear by including younger voices in debates on topics that concern them. A great example of scientists listening to young people is a study conducted by Suparna Choudhury and colleagues, in which neuroscientists asked adolescents their thoughts on the science of the adolescent brain.

    Open up the discussion

    It's my hope that this article, and the review, will provoke discussion. Unfortunately, I feel that the discussion about how the Internet could be affecting brain development has been dominated by adult 'experts'. Young people's experiences and thoughts about this topic are valuable sources of knowledge. Without a doubt, Internet use affects our lives. However, we currently do not know how it is impacting brain development. So if anyone has ideas for experiments to test this, let's hear them.

    Illustration: Rob Beschizza / Shutterstock


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    Notable Replies

    1. There were just a lot of smokers with Cancer around. Are there lots of twenty somethings with defective brains around that we are searching to find an explanation for or are we letting crotchety old people decide we should research how kids are rotting their brains and how balls should never end up in neighbors yards?

    2. kayeu says:

      I'm 59 and am a keen internet and computer user for the last 25 years or so. I grew up without computers or the internet. Back then it was TV that rotted your brain. Lots of discussion when I was young on the effects of television on our young brains. Before that it was comic books destroying our ability to read real books of some literary merit. I think there maybe some merit talking about computer use and obesity. Not as a cause but a contributing factor in some kids having a more sedentary lifestyle these days. But as a former teacher, I do like to see active kids replacing TV time with computer time. Kids should be supervised. Not that you watch over their internet time but more introducing them to alternative things they can do with computers and the internet. Particularly creative uses of the computer. I suppose I would dispute the whole concept of "digital natives". Behind this concept is the idea that you need to be born into this technology to use it with ease and competently. It's an out for adults to learn something new and a sign of some anxiety about digital technology. A lot of adults have digital anxiety. That you can hand a kid an iPad and they'll find their way around in no time flat is just a sign of how damn easy they are to use. And their minds are not set into the idea that this is a computer and, therefore, difficult. I think talking about technology and its effects on the brain, a bigger problem is digital anxiety in many older adults. And the idea that computers and the internet rot young brains is more a symptom of this anxiety. This anxiety is more historical and cultural than anything to do with the physiological wiring of the brain.

    3. kayeu says:

      I suppose it's kinda crazy talking about the internet as a homogenous medium like television. Are kids watching catch-up television, researching an essay, checking out techniques for a craft project, posting a dubious selfie on Facebook, playing a game, or learning how to program a game, listening to music, chatting in a chatroom.. These are all very diverse activities requiring active and passive engagement in a range of activities and skills. I don't see the technology as being bad. Working with my young niece, learning how to weave bracelets using coloured embroidery floss, we had trouble with the questionable written instructions so we checked YouTube for some amateur instructional videos. We could quickly see how to start the weavings and the technique we were trying to learn. Following written instructions can be frustrating. It's much more natural to have someone show you how it's done. We also found lots of patterns for our weavings. What a fabulous resource for these kids! As a 59-year-old, I'm enthusiastic about this technology. My background is art and craft teaching and I love the internet. It's just a matter of knowing we can use it in all sorts of ways. A lot of people talking about the harm caused by the internet probably don't have any idea that it's a terrific resource for old traditional crafts, for example.

    4. Off topic for a moment: It's true...very hotly debated...about ADHD, incorrectly so. I think Stephen Hinshaw's recent book (The ADHD Explosion) will either put an end to the debate or at the very least, clarify it significantly. I trust his work (and the man, too). His research demonstrates pretty convincingly that the spike in ADHD diagnoses since 2006 is related to the change in federal and state funding patterns for schools and school districts that have been incentivized to make diagnoses of ADHD. Worldwide prevalence rates for ADHD are 5-6%. U.S. rates were closer to 13%! (As high as 30% in North Carolina). It wasn't something in the water. It's a fantastic book. Shows how NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and the heavy emphasis on test scores, combined with school's ability leave ADHD-diagnosed kids out of the calculation enabled them to report "higher" test scores. It's complex, but the spike seems reasonably explained by this exact same pattern of funding, across multiple states in the U.S.

      For Davidasposted: So nice to have an actual discussion! Thank you!
      1-2: Yes, public discourse is always ahead of scientific findings. But in 2009, Valerie Reyna, one of the country's leading cognitive neuroscientists said publicly that she means to close the gap:
      "Ordinarily there is a lag time of approximately 20 to 30 years between discovery...and implemention in the real world. We aim to accelerate this process...so that findings can inform both public policy regarding investments in future research and educational practice regarding training the innovators and problem solvers of the future."

      I think Mills (the author of this piece) and I agree that both the rush to get the results out and the mis-translation that inevitably occurs when scientific "results" enter the popular press, is causing problems.

      1. Re: depression. It's the same argument I've been making in these comments. We take the neurobiological as the "really real" the "basis" of all phenomena. Any neuroscientist who says that neuroscience REALLY explains things, is full of crap. It's one part of the elephant (as the old story of the blind man and the elephant suggests). There is no "proof" that neurology REALLY explains things, although many neurologists think it does. But many psychologists believe that depression is the result of "internalized negative self-objects." Others, like me, have a bio-psycho-social approach. But we're all just making up stories. The question is: does our story help.

      Finally, I so very much appreciate your perspective. I write books/articles on the topic of digital media and youth. Would you be open to being interviewed at some point? Currently write a column about "millennials" (sorry, I know its a stupid moniker, but I didn't make it up!)...and your perspective on this whole issue of "neuro-enthusiasm" versus "neuro-scare-mongering."

      Bottom line: Choudhury (from McGill) and McKinney's paper on this very topic is thoughtful and very relevant. Here's a quote:

      "In this paper, then, we are less concerned with whether we really are being wired
      for distraction, superficiality, and unsociability (although certainly some of these
      fears may indeed be well founded), and more with whether existing neuroscientific
      evidence derived largely from neuroimaging studies can indeed resolve these questions
      as the media suggests. We are interested in how brain-based arguments
      rhetorically function in these debates, particularly when cerebral language and
      neuro-discourses increasingly assume a privileged explanatory status in explaining
      and intervening in human behaviour. With anxieties about digital media centering
      on adolescents, who are the heaviest users and often the first adopters of these
      media, we hope our analysis will provide needed critical perspective that can clarify,
      if not shift, the terms of the debate."

    5. As a person who just got back from a four day retreat - the fourth since 2007 - for the members of a discussion board that started 15 years ago, I cannot more highly disagree with the worries about how internet use will affect teenagers.

      As the mom of a teenager who has found a community on Tumblr and is meeting one nearby participant in this group (with my approval and involvement) in real life in a few days, I'm excited that she is also using the Internet to make real connections in the world.

      How will it affect them? They will make friends with people across the globe who share their interests. No matter how backwater an area they live in, they will find like minded people who they can converse with. They will have opportunities to be creative and reach audiences that never existed before. If they are disabled or different they will be able to find a way to contribute in a community that may not be open to them locally.

      Will it harm teens to be looking at their phones all the time, uploading pictures, and all that stuff instead of looking up? Yes if that is all they ever do. But will it will also be possible for them to put the gadgets away and look at people and talk about interesting subjects they have found through the web.

      Sorry, as a techie who has heard every fear voiced about every new advance in communication - it is just fucking ridiculous. You can't be too in touch with other people. No. You can't. It's good to have friends.

      As a woman who is married now to a man who she couldn't be with because 23 years ago, before the web was a part of our lives, a long distance relationship was pure folly, but after it made it possible to email and chat and be together every day when we reconnected (again long distance) - why is this a problem again?

      My life has been so enriched by this technology it is hard for me to imagine why there is even a concern, except, Oh Noes! It's not like when we were kids.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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