Internet and the teen brain: what do we know, and what should we be asking?

Teenagers—and more specifically, their brains—are having something of a moment in the psychological literature and popular press. Noninvasive imaging tools like fMRI allow us to peek at adolescents’ cognition in real time, and to build a better understanding of the brain’s developing structure. You may be familiar with research suggesting that the brain continues to mature well into the 20’s, and that some of the last regions to complete this maturation are involved in higher-order processes like planning for the future and inhibiting impulses. Our growing knowledge of the teen brain has important implications in a variety of domains, including legal culpability and appropriate educational practices.
And we just can’t get enough of it. I could cite dozens of articles from the New York Times, Huffington Post, Time Magazine, and many more, but most telling, I think, is Pixar’s recently released trailer for their upcoming film, “Inside Out,” which literally dives into the mind of a girl on the verge of adolescence (My take: my job would be a heck of a lot simpler if Mindy Kaling and Amy Poehler would just narrate the various cognitive processes going on during my experiments. Hollywood, let’s talk). The Pixar-ization of the emerging teen brain suggests that the concept is more than a meme; it’s such a cultural touchstone that it has become the stuff of modern fairy tale. And why not? Teenagers are up there with witches and big bad wolves in terms of the things that keep us up at night. But why is this the case? Just what is so scary about teenagers?

As I see it, the adolescent experience may frighten or perplex us because it contains a central contradiction. On the one hand, some aspects of this period feel universal—the emotional highs and lows, the sudden looming reality of adulthood, the intense importance of peers’ opinion. Our memories of the emotional and social component of adolescence don’t fade and, in fact, a sizable body of research actually suggests that our memories in adolescence and early adulthood loom larger than those from other periods. This phenomenon is known as the reminiscence bump. 

On the other hand, adolescence is a period during which we do a tremendous amount of cultural learning and thus, the individual experiences of teens throughout time and across societies vary tremendously. They vary so much that parents often have difficulty understanding the appeal of their sons’ and daughters’ day-to-day activities and interests, whether we’re talking about current chart-topping music or the allure of selfies. In fact, teens are so good at absorbing (and creating) sociocultural information that some researchers have proposed that the adolescent years are a sensitive period for social development. If this hypothesis is true, it would mean that something about the very plasticity of our brains is uniquely tuned for social learning during the second decade of life.

And perhaps this is why we are so afraid: if the teen brain is so sensitive to the cultural landscape in which one comes of age, what does it mean that today’s teens are growing up at a time in which so much of this landscape is rendered on a smartphone? Surely our very noisy and expensive neuroimaging machines can settle this question one way or the other, right?

For all the hand wringing—and there sure has been a lot of it—very little research has actually been conducted on the subject of digital media and the adolescent brain. A recent article by University College London researcher Kate Mills reviews this limited literature. Her conclusion? We still have a lot of work to do: “There is currently no evidence to suggest that Internet use has or has not had a profound effect on brain development.”

Mills is suggesting, quite rightly, that we haven’t actually done much to test the effect of the Internet or digital media on the teen brain—at least, published research on this topic is very limited, although several labs around the world are beginning to consider these questions. But what are these questions, exactly? Can we test whether “the Internet has a profound effect on brain development”? Is that a sound empirical question? I would argue that it is not. Rather, the relationship between digital media and the developing adolescent brain is more complex, and involves a variety of other concerns that must first be considered. For example:

What do we mean by “the Internet”? The Internet is not a single entity. When we ask about the effect of the Internet, are we talking about social media? Overall screen time? Online video games? And how are teens using the Internet: to communicate? To learn new information? To avoid paying attention in class? And are we talking web sites or apps, laptops or smartphones? Digital media serves a variety of functions; even an individual tool can be used in many ways. Consider Snapchat, for example: journalists and parents worried that teens would primarily use the ephemeral photo-texting app to send one another explicit photos. Certainly, this is one way that teens (and adults!) can use the tool. But as the app became popular, I noticed teens using it in an unexpected way: to take pictures of themselves making silly faces to send to friends.

In work I’ve done with young college students, we discovered that friends felt more connected when they had a conversation face-to-face compare to online. However, communicating on video-chat also inspired feelings of connectedness; in fact, video chat more closely resembled in-person communication than it did text messaging in terms of the experience of bonding with a close friend. The medium made a big difference!

What is digital media replacing? Another important question to consider is what teens would be doing during the time that they spend digitally connected. Recently, my colleague Yalda blogged about her work looking at the effects of quitting screen time cold turkey during for five days at camp  She and her co-authors discovered that the participating tweens significantly improved in their ability to make judgments about others’ emotions. So did the lack of screens improve their socioemotional functioning? I think it’s reasonable to conclude that it was a factor. But it’s also important to consider what screen-time was replaced by: team-building exercises, group activities, outdoor activities, and physical exercise.

So does online communication replace opportunities for in-person communication? Not necessarily. In Mills paper, she cites recent research suggesting that, “time spent online does not displace time spent doing other activities associated with health and well-being,” including sports and clubs.

What are the implications if the Internet does profoundly affect the teen brain? Although the actual evidence is limited, I’m willing to bet that Internet use does affect the brains of children, teens, and adults. If we do anything long enough, our brain is affected—even if at a level that can’t be measured using current imaging technology, which works in notoriously broad strokes. Does this necessarily mean it is bad or dangerous if we document long-term changes in the brain? That isn’t so clear cut.

Which leads me to a final question: Does the rise of digital technology mean the end of civilization as we know it? In all seriousness, though, when it comes to these sorts of fears about change and the kids these days, we’ve been here before. As Mills notes in her article, Plato and Socrates were busy tut-tutting about the crazy youths and their new-fangled ideas about writing stuff down. This doesn’t mean that all teens will face the coming years unscathed—some will face video game or porn addiction, or feel a tugging emptiness in their social connections. And most of them will ignore their parents at least a few times in favor of a more enticing Snapchat or the newest Kim Kardashian app update. But does neuroscience and psychology research suggest that the Internet is ruining their brains? As Mills demonstrate, the jury is still very much out. I do have a sneaking suspicion, however, that the kids are going to be all right.