TECHNOLOGY AND THE TEENAGE BRAIN

Dr Georgiana Cameron

Teens using Technology

What do we know about technology and teens?

The answer is less straightforward than it might seem. When the issue of teens and technology is raised there tends to be a minefield of opinions about its impact and what should be done to curb usage. It’s a topic that is highly relevant to parents and educators, with frequent news items suggesting that technology is affecting teens’ brains, threatening the moral fabric of society, causing epidemic levels of addiction, and increasing social isolation and ill-being. Many writers recommend that parents set guidelines and wean their children off screens where they can. Advice often suggests allowing no screen time before school, mealtime or bedtime, but to use screen time as a reward after homework is finished. Further advice includes making sure that protections are in place around internet access and social media, and talking to your child about why their screen time is being limited. The advice is often helpful, however much of it isn’t derived from rigorous research.

As neurobiologist, John Medina, explains in his book Attack of the Teenage Brain, research struggles to provide a clear picture of what is happening to teens because there are so many possible factors and questions to explore: is the individual predominantly using a phone or laptop? Is it video games, social media or Google being used? If social media, is it Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Snapchat? All of these factors have their own unique set of implications for teenage social, emotional and intellectual development.

When it comes to adolescents using technology, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle: research by the Pew Research Center in 2010 found that American adolescents were spending an average of 8.5 hours per day on their screens and 58% of 12 year olds owned a mobile phone – a significant rise from a mere 18% in 2004. The study also revealed that 73% of teens using technology were on social networking sites (keep in mind this was 8 years ago!).

It’s evident that there has been a dramatic digital revolution, which has occurred faster than any other communication innovation introduced throughout history. With such a revolution, it is important to gather a better understanding of the positive and negative effects of technology so that parents, educators and teens can work better together to mitigate the risks and optimise the benefits. In her article about the effects of internet use on the adolescent brain, researcher Kathryn Mills argues that although it is clear things that have changed, “there is currently no evidence to suggest that Internet use has or has not had a profound effect on brain development”.

Research on the impact of technology is often contradictory and difficult to interpret. On one hand, a longitudinal study following teens over a one-year period found that social media use was associated with greater levels of empathy (Vossen & Valkenburg, 2016). Studies also found that social media use increases social connectedness for teens (Allen, Ryan, Gray, McInerney & Waters, 2014). However other studies found that social-media use also places teens at a higher risk of experiencing cyberbullying, Facebook-depression and sexting (O'Keeffe & Clarke-Pearson, 2011), and may negatively impact their ability to interpret face-to-face social cues (Uhls, et al., 2014).  Research into how gaming impacts attention is equally confusing, with some studies indicating that gaming can strengthen perception and cognition (Boot, Blakely & Simons, 2011), and others suggesting that playing more than one hour a day is associated with ADHD symptoms  (Chan & Rabinowitz, 2006).  

Studies on problematic internet use (sometimes classified as internet addiction), indicate a greater consensus around results. Experiencing difficulties with personal relationships, emotional regulation, self-regulation and the use of effective coping strategies is associated with internet addiction (Milani, Osualdella & Blasio, 2009; Yu, Kim & Hay, 2013). Neuroscience research suggests that compared to adults, adolescents are potentially more vulnerable to internet addiction. The neurotransmitter dopamine is largely responsible for the sense of pleasure triggered by our brain's reward circuitry when engaging in addictive behaviours. When we see a red notification on our phone, pass to the next level of a game, or watch another funny cat YouTube clip, dopamine is responsible for setting off our anticipatory and positive feelings. When repeated over time, this reward circuit can powerfully reinforce addictive behaviour. The developmental changes associated with adolescence have a tumultuous impact on dopamine levels within the brain (Casey, Jones & Hare, 2008; Giedd, 2012). If we combine this with other brain-related changes in adolescence that are associated with impulsivity, risk-taking and emotional reactivity – the biology of young people places them at increased risk of engaging in addictive behaviours.

So where does this all lead us? It is important to remember that technology encompasses many different tools, some of which are more or less dangerous than others. Most of these tools are neither good nor bad, it simply depends how they are used. When teaching someone how to effectively and safely use tools, whether it is a hammer, a fork, or a steering wheel – it is better to show than tell.

If a teenager divides their study time evenly between Snapchat and reading in preparation for an exam, telling them that multi-tasking reduces their performance is unlikely to change their behaviour. It may be better to find ways for young people to experience this for themselves. For example, students could be asked to engage in an experiment around internet distraction during an in-class test so that they can see first-hand how it impacts their performance. Beyond creating knowledge and awareness, we need to go further to help students develop healthy habits around technology use. When discussing how to study for exams, we need to acknowledge the digital distractions and help students use psychological strategies like chunking the tasks into manageable segments, taking appropriate breaks, becoming self-aware of urges and distractions, and coping with stress.

And potentially most difficult of all, we need to be able to model these behaviours as both parents and educators.

Georgiana Cameron


Dr Georgiana Cameron


Dr Georgiana Cameron is the Research Manager at the Institute of Positive Education. As an educational psychologist and trainer, Georgiana has worked closely with individuals, families and whole school communities in supporting evidence-based approaches to improving wellbeing.