Guest Opinion: Understanding and rehabilitating the teen brain
It is 1:30 in the morning. A faint glow emanates from the slightly ajar door of a bedroom. The mother of a 16-year- old opens the door and flicks on the lights.
"Exactly what do you think you are doing? It is almost 2 a.m. on a school night and you are still playing videogames!" screeches the mom.
After a distinct pause, the boy retorts, "I've already finished all my homework and I have only been playing for an hour."
The mother responds sharply, "You started playing at 10 p.m., almost three hours ago. You have completely lost track of time. Do you think that this is a problem?"
The teen does not even notice his addiction and that three hours have elapsed. This common scene plays out in households across the world. Teens and adults look at the same scenario in different ways. Welcome to the world of a moody, reckless, self-absorbed teen. You might ask, "Why is there such a difference between adults and your average teen?" The answer is deeply rooted in the brain itself.
Teenagers are commonly seen as selfish and inconsiderate. While this may be true, it is not for the reasons you might think. Through no fault of their own, teens do not have the ability to think about the implications of their actions. Before you judge teenagers, you should first examine how their brains develop.
The frontal lobes of teenagers are not completely connected because they lack the thick myelin sheaths (white matter) that are found in adult brains. The function of the white matter is to improve the transmission efficiency of nerve cells and also connect the frontal lobe to the rest of the brain. Complex behavioral responses follow the development and full connection of the frontal lobes. This part of the brain controls all functions that make adults reasonable and responsible such as impulse control, good judgment, and planning ahead of time.
Since a teenager does not have "full access" to this part of the brain, he or she recruits other parts of their brain for somewhat similar functions. In a recent study, examiners asked teenagers and adults questions about their seating preferences in a movie theater. Both parties had similar answers; however teenagers tended to use their temporal sulcus instead of the pre-frontal cortex. While the temporal sulcus guides decision-making based on past actions, the prefrontal cortex factors in prior knowledge and past experiences in making these same decisions.
Relying on a developing brain may seem counter intuitive but there are advantages. The flexible nature of the maturing brain allows it to mold and change its nature unlike, the fully developed brain. As a result, children and teens tend to learn a lot faster than their mature counterparts.
Being able to quickly learn and absorb information from your environment is a mixed blessing for the maturing brain because of its susceptibility to addiction. Studies have demonstrated that spending excessive amounts of time playing video games or using media to stimulate the brain produces dopamine (a chemical that induces happiness in the reward center of the brain). Imaging studies have shown that this increases the size of the reward center in the brain. Similar changes have been noted in heroin addicts.
"Up to 90 percent of American youngsters play video games and as many as 15 percent of them — more than 5 million kids — may be addicted, according to data cited in the AMA council's report." (Video game addiction: a medical disorder?, Daniel Sieberg). "Symptoms" of this addiction include neglecting schoolwork, family, and friends, and distraction during other activities because of gaming.
With the explosive growth of media use among teenagers, this problem has reached epidemic proportions. However, all hope is not lost and we can still reverse the ill effects of media exposure on the brain. Through research, we now know that positive and negative connections made during the brain's maturation will remain with you for the rest of your life. Frequent use of specific neural connections (or synapses) will strengthen them while the unused synapses will waste away. Our goal should be to participate in group activities, such as art and music, which enrich and regenerate the important and positive synapses in our brain. By working in small groups, we strengthen the ties and relationships that reduce the risk for depression.
Based on this research, I think that both art and music should be a required part of the high school and middle school curriculum. By reading books or listening to audio books, our brains are forced to conjure up images whereas watching television or playing video games just gives us the images. Books of any form can also be used to reverse the unfavorable effects of media on the teen brain. Athletics are another brain-enriching activity; since "athletes, in their sport, must routinely make split-second decisions in often very complex environments (e.g., whether to pass or kick the incoming soccer ball), it would make sense to me that they would have superior skill sets in processing the fast-paced information" (How sports may focus the brain, Reynolds). Therefore, sports should also be required through every year of high school.
Understanding the teen brain can help adults better understand and reset their expectations about teens. While adults (such as parents and teachers) need to set limits and monitor teens, there is a very fine balance between controlling them and giving them the room to grow and develop. I hope that adults in charge of setting school curricula will become more educated about the strengths and weaknesses of the teen brain, and make reading, art, music and sports a requirement rather than an option through all of the teen years. By doing so, teens can avoid the pitfalls of addiction and develop good habits that will last their whole lives.
Lavanya Mahadevan is a student at Jordan Middle School and won honorable mention for this article in the DuPont Challenge essay contest.