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.

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Why students shouldn’t be forced to spend so much time sitting at desks in class


Students in New Delhi attend a happiness class July 13 as part of a program by the Delhi government to emphasize mental health and well-being. (Mansi Midha for The Washington Post)
February 7 at 6:00 AM

We all know it’s not a good idea for anybody to be sedentary for too long, for health reasons that are too long to chronicle here. Yet in many classrooms, kids are still forced to sit at desks for long stretches of time.

This post looks at why and how that is hurting young people. It was written by Brad Johnson and speaks about education, fitness education, school administration and leadership. He is co-author of “Learning on Your Feet: Incorporating Physical Activity Into the K-8 Classroom.”

This post first appeared in the publication Principal, which ispublished by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. I was given permission to republish it. You can find out more at Johnson’s website, doctorbradjohnson.com.

By Brad Johnson

With the decrease in physical education and recess time over the past 30 years, several disturbing trends have emerged. First is the issue of obesity: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 3 children in the U.S. is overweight or obese — double the figures from the 1980s. From 2000 to 2009, incidences of adult-onset (Type 2) diabetes in children and teens increased 30 percent.

Diagnoses of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder have also skyrocketed in recent years. In the 1990s, the use of psycho-stimulants such as Ritalin shot up 700 percent, and the United States now consumes nearly 90 percent of the world’s supply of such drugs. There are 5.7 million children age 6-17 who have been diagnosed with ADHD. If these stats were related to an infectious disease, we would declare it a full-blown epi­demic. Instead, we call it education as usual.

Is it any wonder that children are bored, off-task, dis­ruptive or otherwise disengaged when all they do is sit at desks and listen to lectures or work on assignments with little physical activity involved? From kindergarten through high school, students spend most of their academic lives at a desk. A classroom in which students quietly work at their desks might appear to be ideal, but the amount of time we subject children to a seated position is almost inhumane.

The brain-body connection

Beyond the obvious health-related issues, research sug­gests that sedentary education might be the reason that students’ creativity and intelligence are hindered through­out their formative years.

Until the age of 4, children are continually playing and learning in a state of constant motion. But when they enter school, the focus shifts to uniformity, control, following rules and sitting at a desk. We are shortchanging our students when it comes to overall education and student achievement. So, what is it about movement and learning that is so important, anyway?

First, physical activity improves brain elas­ticity, which allows children to learn more easily. Second, there is evidence that contact with the natural environment has a calming effect on children. And third, exercise releases endorphins (neurotransmitters that produce a feeling of well-being) that make children feel more relaxed. Finally, the part of the brain that processes movement also processes learning. So when students are sitting still, the learning pro­cess is actually hindered rather than enhanced.

Several studies offer evidence that years of fine motor exercise allow brain reorganization and nerve growth. Physical movement such as standing, stretching, walking or marching can help the brain focus. If students feel drowsy, for instance, they should be allowed to stand at the back of the room for up to two minutes and stretch on their own.

When I taught middle-level science classes, I would always have the students moving. I would let the students stand by their desks, sit on the floor or lie on the floor, even when taking notes. If a student had excess energy, I would let them do push-ups in the back of the class. This became the norm for the classroom quickly, so there were few behavior issues.

Changes in body position help develop the vestibular system (inner ear and balance), alter blood chemistry, and develop core muscles. And physical activity — especially core strength and balance exercises — helps develop the executive function part of the brain where new learning is processed. Executive function includes cogni­tion, organization, focus, emotional regulation, and the ability to multitask, all of which help students succeed academically.

Sadly, only 1 in 12 students has the core strength and balance of students from the 1980s.

Tech’s effect

Over the past 20 or 30 years, Americans have become infatuated with technology to the point that we think every child must have a device and that gadgets will be the great equalizer in education. But those declines in scores might point to technology as being more culprit than cure.

When we examine the countries that lead the world according to international PISA scores, we see a stark contrast. In Finland, students are given 15 minutes of recess not just once or twice a day, but every hour. Finnish officials told Politico that they didn’t need laptops and iPads to get to the top of international educa­tion rankings. When morning classes begin, smartphones disappear. The students — some of the highest-achieving in the world — cut graph paper and solve equations using clunky plastic calculators. Teachers prefer hands-on learning methods, using chalkboards rather than smartboards.

Similarly, South Korea wanted to immerse its schools in technology a few years ago, but realized that too much tech might not be good for students. Schools limit the amount of class time spent on computers, and they haven’t seen a drop in test scores.

Classroom management

When surveyed, teachers typically say that classroom management is the toughest part of teaching. We have all been trained in different methods to manage behavior. Many say that relationships, expectations and consistency are key to behavior management. But behavior has less to do with teachers’ actions than it does with the students themselves.

If a student is constantly rocking, swaying, or tapping a pencil or foot, it doesn’t mean they don’t care about rules and expectations; it means they are children who have lots of energy. As I mentioned above, the executive function area of the brain is responsible for reg­ulating emotions, organizational skills, focus, and for multitasking — traits that influence a student’s ability to behave in class.

Imagine a principal walking by a classroom at the end of the day and seeing students slouched over in their desks, tapping a pencil or a water bottle. His or her first thought might be that the teacher is not engaging or that the lesson is boring. The reality is that neither may be true; instead, students might lack the core strength to sit up and focus on the lesson.

The research says

Over the past three decades, we have seen tre­mendous increases in ADHD diagnoses and the numbers of overweight and obese students. This is a recipe for disaster. A physically active classroom could turn these trends around.

What are the effects of adding more physi­cal activity to the academic classroom? Mark Benden, director of the Ergonomics Center at Texas A&M, has dozens of schools using pilot programs to make classrooms more active. His research shows many benefits: There has been a decrease in ADHD medication among the students in his classrooms; body mass index among overweight students in active class­rooms showed significant decreases. Executive function and working memory showed significant improvement, leading to improved academic achievement.

Physical activity also showed positive results in alternative schools. One class of students with behavior disorders and learning disabilities began using treadmills and stationary bikes at the beginning of class. Within four months, stu­dents took less medication, behavior improved, and students improved their average by one full grade in reading, writing and math.

These results reinforce the idea that the tra­ditional desk-centered, sedentary classroom must be redesigned to better suit students’ needs. It can even be as simple as giving stu­dents a “brain break” every 15 minutes to stand and stretch, or offering stability ball seating, pushup mats, and other accessories. To increase student focus, on-task behavior, achievement and general well-being, include physical activity in the classroom. It’s time to get students out of their seats and learning on their feet!

Students Learn From People They Love

The New York Times

Putting relationship quality at the center of education.

David Brooks

By David Brooks

Opinion Columnist

CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

 

A few years ago, when I was teaching at Yale, I made an announcement to my class. I said that I was going to have to cancel office hours that day because I was dealing with some personal issues and a friend was coming up to help me sort through them.

I was no more specific than that, but that evening 10 or 15 students emailed me to say they were thinking of me or praying for me. For the rest of the term the tenor of that seminar was different. We were closer. That one tiny whiff of vulnerability meant that I wasn’t aloof Professor Brooks, I was just another schmo trying to get through life.

That unplanned moment illustrated for me the connection between emotional relationships and learning. We used to have this top-down notion that reason was on a teeter-totter with emotion. If you wanted to be rational and think well, you had to suppress those primitive gremlins, the emotions. Teaching consisted of dispassionately downloading knowledge into students’ brains.

Then work by cognitive scientists like Antonio Damasio showed us that emotion is not the opposite of reason; it’s essential to reason. Emotions assign value to things. If you don’t know what you want, you can’t make good decisions.

 

Furthermore, emotions tell you what to pay attention to, care about and remember. It’s hard to work through difficulty if your emotions aren’t engaged. Information is plentiful, but motivation is scarce.

That early neuroscience breakthrough reminded us that a key job of a school is to give students new things to love — an exciting field of study, new friends. It reminded us that what teachers really teach is themselves — their contagious passion for their subjects and students. It reminded us that children learn from people they love, and that love in this context means willing the good of another, and offering active care for the whole person.

Over the last several years our understanding of the relationship between emotion and learning has taken off. My impression is that neuroscientists today spend less time trying to locate exactly where in the brain things happen and more time trying to understand the different neural networks and what activates them.

Everything is integrated. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California shows that even “sophisticated” emotions like moral admiration are experienced partly by the same “primitive” parts of the brain that monitor internal organs and the viscera. Our emotions literally affect us in the gut.

Patricia Kuhl of the University of Washington has shown that the social brain pervades every learning process. She gave infants Chinese lessons. Some infants took face-to-face lessons with a tutor. Their social brain was activated through direct eye contact and such, and they learned Chinese sounds at an amazing clip. Others watched the same lessons through a video screen. They paid rapt attention, but learned nothing.

Extreme negative emotions, like fear, can have a devastating effect on a student’s ability to learn. Fear amps up threat perception and aggression. It can also subsequently make it hard for children to understand causal relationships, or to change their mind as context changes.

Even when conditions are ideal, think of all the emotions that are involved in mastering a hard subject like algebra: curiosity, excitement, frustration, confusion, dread, delight, worry and, hopefully, perseverance and joy. You’ve got to have an educated emotional vocabulary to maneuver through all those stages.

And students have got to have a good relationship with teachers. Suzanne Dikker of New York University has shown that when classes are going well, the student brain activity synchronizes with the teacher’s brain activity. In good times and bad, good teachers and good students co-regulate each other.

The bottom line is this, a defining question for any school or company is: What is the quality of the emotional relationships here?

And yet think about your own school or organization. Do you have a metric for measuring relationship quality? Do you have teams reviewing relationship quality? Do you know where relationships are good and where they are bad? How many recent ed reform trends have been about relationship-building?

We focus on all the wrong things because we have an outmoded conception of how thinking really works.

The good news is the social and emotional learning movement has been steadily gaining strength. This week the Aspen Institute (where I lead a program) published a national commission report called “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope.” Social and emotional learning is not an add-on curriculum; one educator said at the report’s launch, “It’s the way we do school.” Some schools, for example, do no academic instruction the first week. To start, everybody just gets to know one another. Other schools replaced the cops at the door with security officers who could also serve as student coaches.

When you start thinking this way it opens up the wide possibilities for change. How would you design a school if you wanted to put relationship quality at the core? Come to think of it, how would you design a Congress?

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on FacebookTwitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

David Brooks has been a columnist with The Times since 2003. He is the author of “The Road to Character” and the forthcoming book, “The Second Mountain.”

Middle School Misfortunes Then and Now, One Teacher’s Take

Wait ’til 8th

Middle school 2008 vs 2018.jpg

By: Benjamin Conlon

Let’s imagine a seventh grader. He’s a quiet kid, polite, with a few friends. Just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill twelve-year-old. We’ll call him Brian. Brian’s halfway through seventh grade and for the first time, he’s starting to wonder where he falls in the social hierarchy at school. He’s thinking about his clothes a little bit, his shoes too. He’s conscious of how others perceive him, but he’s not that conscious of it.

He goes home each day and from the hours of 3 p.m. to 7 a.m., he has a break from the social pressures of middle school. Most evenings, he doesn’t have a care in the world. The year is 2008.

Brian has a cell phone, but it’s off most of the time. After all, it doesn’t do much. If friends want to get in touch, they call the house. The only time large groups of seventh graders come together is at school dances. If Brian feels uncomfortable with that, he can skip the dance. He can talk to teachers about day-to-day problems. Teachers have pretty good control over what happens at school.

Now, let’s imagine Brian on a typical weekday. He goes downstairs and has breakfast with his family. His mom is already at work, but his dad and sisters are there. They talk to each other over bowls of cereal. The kids head off to school soon after. Brian has a fine morning in his seventh grade classroom and walks down to the lunchroom at precisely 12 p.m.

There’s a slick of water on the tiled floor near the fountain at the back of the cafeteria. A few eighth graders know about it, and they’re laughing as yet another student slips and tumbles to the ground.

Brian buys a grilled cheese sandwich. It comes with tomato soup that no one ever eats. He polishes off the sandwich and heads to the nearest trashcan to dump the soup. When his sneakers hit the water slick, he slips just like the others. The tomato soup goes up in the air and comes down on his lap.

Nearby, at the table of eighth graders, a boy named Mark laughs. He laughs at Brian the same way the boys around him laugh at Brian. They laugh because they’re older, and they know something the younger kids don’t. They laugh at the slapstick nature of the fall. The spilled tomato soup is a bonus. The fall is a misfortune for Brian. That’s all. It’s not an asset for Mark. A few kids hear the laughter and look over, but Brian gets up quickly and rushes off to the bathroom to change into his gym shorts.

Mark tries to retell the story to a friend later. The friend doesn’t really get it because he wasn’t there. He can’t picture it. In fact, Mark seems a little mean for laughing at all.

After lunch, Brian returns to homeroom in his gym shorts. No one seems to notice the change. He breathes a sigh of relief. The cafeteria fall is behind him. He meets his sisters at the end of the day and they ask why he’s wearing gym shorts. He tells them he spilled some tomato sauce on his pants. They head home and spend the afternoon and evening together, safe and sound, home life completely separate from school life. Brian doesn’t think about the incident again. Only a few people saw it. It’s over.

Now, let’s imagine Brian again. Same kid. Same family. Same school. He’s still in seventh grade, but this time it’s 2018.

When Brian sits down for breakfast, his dad is answering an email at the table. His older sister is texting, and his younger sister is playing a video game. Brian has an iPhone too. He takes it out and opens the Instagram app. The Brian from 2008 was wondering about his position in the social hierarchy. The Brian from 2018 knows. He can see it right there on the screen. He has fewer ‘followers’ than the other kids in his grade. That’s a problem. He wants to ask his father what to do, but there’s that email to be written. Instead, Brian thinks about it all morning at school. While his teacher talks, he slips his phone out and checks to see how many ‘followers’ the other kids in class have. The answer doesn’t help his confidence. At precisely 12 p.m., he heads to the cafeteria. He buys a grilled cheese. It comes with tomato soup that no one ever eats.

At the back of the lunchroom, Mark sits with the other eighth graders. He holds a shiny new iPhone in one hand. Mark has had an iPhone for five years. He’s got all the apps. Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. He’s got lots of followers too. He doesn’t know all of them, but that’s okay.

A few years ago, Mark made his first Instagram post. It was a picture of his remote control car. Mark used to really enjoy remote control cars. Mark checked Instagram an hour after putting up that first picture. A bright red dot showed at the bottom of the page. He clicked it. Someone had ‘liked’ the picture of the car. Mark felt validated. It was good that he posted the picture. A little bit of dopamine was released into Mark’s brain. He checked the picture an hour later. Sure enough, another ‘like’. More dopamine. He felt even better.

For a while, pictures of the remote control car were sufficient. They generated enough ‘likes’ to keep Mark happy. He no longer got much joy from actually driving the remote control car, but he got plenty from seeing those ‘likes’ pile up.

Then something started to happen. The ‘likes’ stopped coming in. People didn’t seem interested in the pictures of the car anymore. This made Mark unhappy. He missed the ‘likes’ and the dopamine that came with them. He needed them back. He needed more exciting pictures, because exciting pictures would bring more views and more ‘likes’. So, he decided to drive his car right out into the middle of the road. He had his little brother film the whole thing. He filmed the remote control car as it got flattened by a passing truck. Mark didn’t bother to collect it. He just grabbed his phone and posted the video. It was only a few minutes before the ‘likes’ started coming in. He felt better.

Now it’s eighth grade and Mark has become addicted to social media.  Sure, he needs a lot more ‘likes’ to get the same feeling, but that’s okay. That just means he needs more content. Good content. Content no one else has. That’s the kind that gets a lot of ‘likes’, really, really fast. Mark has learned the best content comes from filming and posting the embarrassing experiences of classmates.

When he notices that water slick at the back of the cafeteria, he’s ready.  Each time someone walks by and falls, their misfortune becomes an asset for Mark. A part of Mark wants them to fall. He hopes they fall.

Brian walks across the cafeteria with his soup, minding his own business. Suddenly, his feet slide out from under him. The tomato soup goes up in the air and comes down on his lap. He’s so embarrassed, that when he stands up and rushes off to the bathroom, he doesn’t notice Mark filming.

Mark’s fingers race over his iPhone screen before Brian is out of sight. That was a great video he just took, and he wants to get it online. Fast. He knows he’s not supposed to have his cell phone out in school, but the teachers really only enforce that rule during class. They all use Twitter and Instagram too. They understand.

Mark doesn’t know who he just filmed, and he doesn’t care. It’s not his fault the kid fell on the floor. He’s just the messenger. The video is a kind of public service announcement. He’s just warning everyone else about the water spot in the cafeteria. That’s what Mark tells himself.

He gets the video uploaded to Snapchat first. No time for a caption. It speaks for itself. He has it up on Instagram seconds later. By then, the ‘likes’ are already coming in. Dopamine floods into Mark’s brain. There’s a comment on Instagram already! “What a loser!” it says. Mark gives the comment a ‘like’. Best to keep the audience happy.

This has been a rewarding lunch. The bell’s going to ring in a few minutes. Mark sits back and refreshes his screen again and again and again until it does.

Meanwhile, Brian heads back from the bathroom, having changed into his gym shorts. He’s still embarrassed about the fall. It happened near the back of the cafeteria, though. He doesn’t think many people saw. He hopes they didn’t. But when he walks into the classroom, a lot of people look at him. One girl holds her phone up at an odd angle. Is she…taking a picture? The phone comes down quickly and she starts typing, so he can’t be sure.

Class begins. Brian is confused because people keep slipping their phones out and glancing back at him. He asks to go to the bathroom. Inside a stall, he opens Instagram. There he is on the screen, covered in tomato sauce. How could this be? Who filmed this? Below the video, a new picture has just appeared. It’s him in his gym shorts. The caption reads, “Outfit change!”

Brian scrolls frantically through the feed trying to find the source of the video. He can’t. It’s been shared and reshared too many times. He notices his follower count has dropped. He doesn’t want to go to class. He just wants it to stop.

He meets his sisters outside at the end of the day. Several students snap pictures as he walks by. Neither sister says a word. Brian knows why.

Home was a safe place for Brian in 2008. Whatever happened in school, stayed in school. Not now. Brian arrives at his house, heart thundering, and heads straight to his bedroom. He’s supposed to be doing homework, but he can’t concentrate. Alone in the dark, he refreshes his iPhone again and again and again and again.

Brian’s family is having his favorite dish for dinner, but he doesn’t care. He wants it to be over so he can get back to his phone. Twice, he goes to the bathroom to check Instagram. His parents don’t mind, they’re checking their own phones.

Brian discovers that two new versions of the video have been released. One is set to music and the other has a nasty narration. Both have lots of comments. He doesn’t know how to fight back, so he just watches as the view counts rise higher and higher. His own follower count, his friend count, keeps going in the opposite direction. Brian doesn’t want to be part of this. He doesn’t like this kind of thing. He can’t skip it though. It’s not like the dance. And he can’t tell a teacher. This isn’t happening at school.

He stays up all night refreshing the feed, hoping the rising view count will start to slow. Mark is doing the same thing at the other side of town. He has lots of new followers. This is his best video ever.

At 3 a.m., they both turn off their lights and stare up at their respective ceilings. Mark smiles. He hopes tomorrow something even more embarrassing happens to a different kid. Then he can film that and get even more ‘likes’. Across town, Brian isn’t smiling, but sadly, he’s hoping for exactly the same thing.

From the Author

I started teaching in 2009. At that time, public school was very much the way I remembered it. That’s not the case anymore. Smartphones and social media have transformed students into creatures craving one thing: content. It’s a sad state of affairs.

But there’s hope.

Over the last few years, my students have become increasingly interested in stories from the days before smartphones and social media. In the same way many adults look back fondly on simpler times, kids look back to second and third grade, when no one had a phone. I think a lot of them already miss those days.

Smartphones and social media aren’t going anywhere. Both are powerful tools, with many benefits. But they have fundamentally altered how children interact with the world and not in a good way. We can change that. In addition to the “Wait Until 8th” pledge, consider taking the following steps to help your children reclaim childhood.

  1. Propose that administrators and teachers stop using social media for school related purposes. In many districts teachers are encouraged to employ Twitter and Instagram for classroom updates. This is a bad thing. It normalizes the process of posting content without consent and teaches children that everything exciting is best viewed through a recording iPhone. It also reinforces the notion that ‘likes’ determine value. Rather than reading tweets from your child’s teacher, talk to your children each day. Ask what’s going on in school. They’ll appreciate it.
  2. Insist that technology education include a unit on phone etiquette, the dark sides of social media and the long-term ramifications of posting online. Make sure students hear from individuals who have unwittingly and unwillingly been turned into viral videos.
  3. Tell your children stories from your own childhood. Point out how few of them could have happened if smartphones had been around. Remind your children that they will some day grow up and want stories of their own. An afternoon spent online doesn’t make for very good one.
  4. Teach your children that boredom is important. They should be bored. Leonardo Da Vinci was bored. So was Einstein. Boredom breeds creativity and new ideas and experiences. Cherish boredom.
  5. Remind them that, as the saying goes, adventures don’t come calling like unexpected cousins. They have to be found. Tell them to go outside and explore the real world. Childhood is fleeting. It shouldn’t be spent staring at a screen.

 


Benjamin Conlon is a public school teacher and author of The Slingshot’s Secreta middle school mystery for anyone trying to find old-fashioned adventure in the digital age. Benjamin grew up in New England and spent much of his childhood exploring the woods surrounding his hometown. After college, he began teaching elementary school. He wrote The Slingshot’s Secret as a reminder that even in a world filled with technology, adventure abounds.

Link between social media and depression stronger in teen girls than boys, study says

CNN

I Ran 4 Experiments to Break My Social Media Addiction. Here’s What Worked.

 

Social media can connect us to new ideas, help us share our work, and allow previously unheard voices to influence culture. Yet it can also be a highly addictive time-sink if we’re not careful about our goals, purpose, and usage.

Over the last two years, I conducted four different experiments to monitor my own behavior, implementing trackers and blockers in order to better understand how social media usage affected my productivity. My goal was to see if by interrupting my daily behavior I could change my “default settings” and have more time for deep, focused work.

In the end, these four experiments opened my eyes about my relationship to social platforms, and taught me effective strategies to maximize the benefit of these social tools while limiting the downsides.

The first step was collecting data. Before beginning my experiments, I tracked my daily behavior to better understand where my time and energy was going, which gave me insight into what I could change to produce more satisfying deep work. I used RescueTime for tracking my computer usage, and Moment to track my cell phone behaviors.

Experiment #1: Complete Removal of Social Sites For 30 Days

My first experiment was a complete removal of all social aspects from my routine: no Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, or LinkedIn for 30 days. Leading up to it, I raised objections—“but I need Facebook for my work!”, my brain sputtered, in a testament to the addictive power of the apps.

I logged out of each site and deleted all the apps from my phone. Then, I used Freedom, a website blocking tool, to restrict the social sites from my browser and phone. Finally, I had my partner take over my phone and install parental restrictions on browser sites with a password unknown to me. (I wasn’t taking any chances.)

The Results. Once I decided to go all-in, it was surprisingly easier to do than expected. There was a relief in being offline and deciding, once and for all, to do it. Here’s what I learned:

  • There were a few technical hassles: Facebook, in particular, is embedded in a lot of other applications, which created a problem any a tool required Facebook as a login. Going forward, I’ll create email-based logins only (which is also better for security).
  • My book-reading skyrocketed. In a month, I read more books than I had in the combined three months prior. Whenever I craved a break, I turned to my Kindle, instead of social or news sites.
  • I used social sites a surprising amount for research and discovery—when I’m thinking of a person I want to connect with, or a project I want to follow-up on, I would quickly type the social site for ease. Not having access created more friction in the short-term, but didn’t ultimately delay the work I was doing. There was a tension between instant access and carving out boundaries for deeper creative work that I found useful, albeit annoying.

After the experiment was over, I went back to allowing myself unlimited social media access and continued to track my usage using RescueTime. With a fresh perspective after a month away, I was able to more clearly see a pattern emerge around how I used the various sites, both for better and for worse. My key finding was the marked difference in my behaviors across devices: My laptopwasn’t the biggest culprit for addictive behavior: when I was at my desk, working, I spent the majority of my time actually working. My phone was the biggest culprit for addictive behavior.

Further, it was very clearly time-based. My social media usage (or cravings) clearly spiked at certain times. Most of my bad habits were tied up in late-night tiredness, early-morning mindlessness, and craving “The Scroll” whenever I was tired. It also became fairly predictable that I wanted a mid-morning break (around 11am) and an afternoon break (around 3 or 4pm). By far, the worst time was late evening, after dinner, when my brain felt like complete mush.

By all-out blocking the social feeds for thirty days, I saw where in the day my tiredness emerged and when I wanted to use the platforms for research or actual connection.

Experiment #2: Carving Out Daily Time Blockers

I wanted to learn whether or not I could limit, but not eliminate, social media and have equally effective results. This next experiment involved a daily restriction on websites based on the known “tired times” I’d identified in the first experiment.

For two weeks, I limited social access during certain periods of the day using the blocking app like Freedom. I allowed social sites on my computer in the afternoons only — not in the mornings, or after dinner. I also blocked all news websites, television sites, and installed Newsfeed Eradicator for Facebook, a social plug-in that helps prevent the scrolling nature of the newsfeed.

Results: Keeping the mornings social-media and news free was a game changer. I got so much more done on my biggest projects by having dedicated focus hours, and also knowing that there was a scheduled break in my day coming up.

  • The long-term effects of this change became apparent by day four or five. In the mornings, if I succumbed to impulsivity (a quick check here, an Amazon purchase there, firing off a couple of emails), it was far more difficult for me to throttle back into the realm of deep work.
  • By carving out chunks of the day to focus on specific work projects (moving one big project forward before 11am), I radically improved my personal productivity.
  • Temptation was strong, but waned over time: by overcoming the biggest pull to check first thing in the morning, I was much more focused and clear throughout the rest of the morning.

This proved to be a very effective strategy for me. Time-based internet blockers helped me increase my productivity. But now the reverse question came up: instead of blocking out times when I’d never use social, what if I dedicated a particular slot of time to it?

Experiment #3: The Social “Happy Hour”

The next experiment I tried was dedicating a specific hour of my day completely for use on social sites. I set up a calendar invitation from 4-5pm: a “happy hour” at the end of the work day to connect, enjoy, and run across new people and ideas after nearly 12 hours of working or parenting.

Results: Creating a built-in stress relief hour where I know that I can slide into “social research and browsing” (“The Scroll”), helped me avoid temptation at other hours of the day. It was easier to replace a bad habit with a better one than to focus all my energy on eliminating the bad habit.

  • Strangely, consolidating all of my social media use into a single hour made it seem less exciting. I noticed that I’d be finished scrolling within 20 minutes, or 30 minutes on a long day. There’s only so much sustained reading and commenting that I can do.
  • I was much more efficient at responding to all of the requests that come my way—rather than have metered out conversations trickling through the day, I buckled down, opened up new browser tabs for each meaningful mention or request, and whipped through it.
  • My content creation went way down. Instead, I began to plan ahead with a loose Evernote file for social media status updates and things I wanted to share, and the 12-hour delay between composing and pressing “publish” gave me a better chance to reflect on whether instant-sharing was really still necessary.

The biggest insights were that (1) social media usage dripped throughout the day drains the energy and focus I have for writing and other work, and (2) that there’s something insidiously satisfying about pressing publish on a status update, and each time I do it, I get the dopamine hit of satisfaction and response. But each tiny posting saps energy, and that adds up.

Experiment #4: 24 Hours To Break the Cycle

One of my favorite methods for resetting my brain is taking a full weekend day without my phone or my laptop, an idea I originally got from Tiffany Shlain’s “tech shabbat.” Back when I used to train for triathlons and open-water swims, Saturdays were spent largely outdoors, and it’s rather difficult to spend time scrolling the web while biking or swimming. So I used Freedom and a mesh wifi network to block the internet from midnight on Friday evening until Saturday at 3pm from all of my machines.

Results. Having something to do—going on a hike, going to the beach, meeting friends for coffee—helps tremendously.

  • The hardest part is walking out the door without the phone. From there, the freedom begins. The best way to block the internet is to physically leave devices elsewhere.
  • On days when I stay inside, I set my Freedom App to a weekend schedule of “no social media or email” until 3pm on Saturdays. The mornings can be lazy and slow. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an emergency worker, and we can all make it through the day if I’m not on email at 6am on a Saturday morning. By the time 1pm rolls around, I’m usually so involved in some other activity that I don’t notice.
  • I found I needed to be flexible about this experiment. On days when I have article deadlines or want to work a few hours on the weekend, I’ll set parameters for how and when to log on to get a chunk of work done.

Today, even with kids (and no triathlons currently), I still notice the effect of taking a Saturday away each week to disrupt the pattern of connection. A day free of the Internet is a great way to do a pattern reset if you notice (as I have) personal productivity dips by Friday.

Shifting From Subtraction to Addition

By and large, my first experiments were based on control and elimination. Sometimes, instead of focusing on constriction and willpower, however, it’s actually a better strategy to focus on the thing I want more of: more reading, more unplugged time with my family, space to think. One of the reasons diets don’t work very well is because most of them focus what you restrict, rather than what you add. My later experiments opened my eyes to the power of addition: planning ahead for dedicated social time, or a Saturday spent outdoors.

Today, I use Freedom to block social websites and news in the mornings nearly every day. I deleted Facebook and email from my phone, I will manually re-install them from 4pm to 5pm and then delete them again (yes, daily). I take regular 24-hour breaks. And I track my usage with RescueTime, which sends me an alert when I’ve hit 45 minutes of total “distracting” time.

With social media, many of us want to reduce our consumption, but we miss an important piece of the puzzle: we’re craving something that we want, and we think that social media has a quick answer. These experiments helped me realize that at the heart of my cravings around the social internet are deep connections with friends, access to new ideas and information, or time to zone out and relax after a hard day. Each of these components can be satisfied with other things beyond social media, and more effectively. As with many tools, it’s not an all or nothing, good-versus-bad conversation. I will continue to experiment in the future, especially now that Apple has introduced it’s “Screen Time” feature. Just because the apps are available, doesn’t mean our current default behaviors are the best ways to use them or get what we want. By limiting my access to social sites, I created a pattern disrupt that allowed me to reach out to more friends, read more books, and go deeper into work that mattered.


Sarah K. Peck is an author and startup advisor based in New York City. She’s the founder and executive director of Startup Pregnant, a media company documenting the stories of women’s leadership across work and family, and host of the Startup Pregnant Podcast.