Wise up about Cell Phones, Internet and the Teenage Brain

Wise up about Cell Phones, Internet and the Teenage Brain

Daughter on the phone

The teenage brain is under major reconstruction during the teenage years. There is a window of opportunity to “use it or lose it.” What this means is that the brain is doing some major pruning of brain cells.

If you use these brain cells these neural connections will stay. Experience is what causes these neurons to fire and wire together. If you don’t use them you will lose them and they will wither away. The neurons that get used repeatedly by experience are wired together into the brain’s electrical networks.

If the digital world is not monitored it can be a barrier to your daughter “using it.”

It’s not that the digital world is bad. There are many benefits. The Internet is a great resource for learning, sharing information, connecting with people, and being entertained.

But how things have changed since we were in high school. The new digital world catches us off guard, because it’s unfamiliar territory.

When I was in High School I had a phone with a telephone cord. I could only talk in the kitchen or in my parents’ bedroom. There was some built in accountability, but no more.

With the ever-changing apps, instant messaging, texting, skyping, on cell phones, ipad’s, and laptops; monitoring your teen can feel like an uphill battle.

Shelly is a therapist and has a daughter who is in middle school. Shelly came to my office extremely upset. She had just gotten her phone bill.

Her 7th grade daughter had sent three thousand texts in the past month and most of them were from midnight to 4am on school nights.

Shelly was shocked, hurt and felt extremely betrayed. Shelly was unaware and unprepared. She didn’t think about the addictive side of technology. She didn’t consider her daughter’s undeveloped PFC, and the dopamine thrill of connecting with boys at night.

Once Shelly was educated about teens and cell phones, she realized it wasn’t personal.
Shelly intervened and put the brakes on, and took her daughter’s cell phone at night.

There are three big reasons you can “lose it” with electronics, which is too much screen time, inappropriate content, and chronic distraction.

Dr. David Walsh in his book Smart Parenting, Smarter Kids states, “Today the average school-aged kid spends more than fifty-three hours a week watching television, playing video games, or using the computer.” Most teens don’t get this much sleep in a week.

A huge problem with this amount of screen time is that it is empty brain calories. They are not investing their attention, skills, and abilities in real life. This especially impacts their relationships.

Many moms have complained that when their daughter has a friend spend the night that they barely talk to each other. They can be in the same room texting other friends, or even each other.

As shocking as this is to us, in 2010 Pew Internet & American Life Project found that face-to-face communication fell behind texting as teen’s favorite way of communicating with friends.

This causes big problems for brain development. This is a critical time for the teenage brain to wire networks for communication skills, empathic listening and the ability to interpret and respond to non-verbal cues. All of these skills take practice.

Girls can also “lose it” with inappropriate content. This past year I saw a large number of teen girls in my private practice because they were caught sexting and had sent inappropriate pictures on line, only to find their private pictures had been forwarded to schools all over the community.

We made mistakes when we were in high school, but these digital mistakes will always be remembered in the cyber world.

Because of impulsivity, bullying, and the dopamine driver, these girls shared way too much, leaving them exposed to humiliation and shame.

Another way you “lose it” in the digital world is through chronic distraction. About a month ago I was at Starbucks with a friend. At the table next to me were four teens working on a school project. They sat at a table with four laptops open, while they simultaneously texted, and had conversations. I don’t know how they could have accomplished anything.

Chronic distraction has become the new normal for this generation of teens. You see this when your daughter is doing her homework. She will argue with you that she can study while she is watching You Tube videos, and texting her friends. She will tell you that she is better at multi-tasking than you are.

The truth is you cannot give quality attention to two things at once. Teens have learned to shift their attention rapidly from one thing to another, but they are still focusing on one thing at a time. The problem with multitasking is that you lose speed, accuracy and efficiency.

Multi- tasking in reality is chronic distraction and takes a toll on homework, relationships and school performance. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that texting in the classroom decreases concentration and focus. It’s important to eliminate and minimize the distractions of media. This is a crucial time for teens to develop focused uninterrupted attention in the prefrontal cortex.

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