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Technology and the Teenage Brain

What do we know about the impact of technology on the teenage brain? We know enough to worry and ask critical questions, but we lack conclusive research studies to provide clear answers to all those questions and to develop definitive approaches and strategies. There is enough knowledge, however, to support recommendations that can guide parents, educators, and other caring adults to help adolescents navigate technology. There’s also common sense.

A recent editorial in Lancet argues that “children and adolescents have the most to gain and are most at risk from digital technologies.” As adults, we have a critical role to play — a responsibility to ask questions and educate ourselves so that we have the knowledge and skills to guide, support, and learn from our children and youth.


Is Technology Bad for the Teenage Brain?
Yes. No. It depends. There are some things we do know, and some we do not. We need more research, but we also need to know the research that already exists. Start here.
Life in Likes
This report by the Children’s Commissioner (England) shows the two sides of social media. While it reports a positive impact on 8- to 12-year-olds and their well-being, it also warns that young people are becoming dependent on social validation offered by social media platforms. This leads to anxiety and attempts to adapt offline behaviours to idealized online profiles.

See also: What Makes Teens Unhappy? Their Phones (January 2018 issue of Youth Development Today)
Growing up Digital
Having explored how young people use the Internet and are impacted by it, the Children’s Commissioner (England) has proposed an action plan to ensure that young adults exhibit resilience, information, and power as informed digital citizens.

Of particular interest in the report (PDF) is the Digital United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (page 16), a revised version of the 1989 United Nations document, updated for use in the 21st century.
Social Media and Teen Anxiety
Social media can exacerbate stressors and challenges that adolescents encounter as part of their lives and development. But, social media can also generate feelings of inclusion and empowerment. If you’re worried about the impact of social media on a teenager in your life, individualize your approach based on your knowledge of the teen’s life, character, and context.
When Teens Cyberbully Themselves
Self-harming behaviour is used by teens as a coping mechanism to alleviate feelings of pain or exclusion. Recent research suggests that some adolescents engage in digital self-harm, a new form of self aggression that involves posting derogatory content about themselves on social media. “Similar to teens who self-harm by cutting, kids who cyberbully themselves often suffer silently, feeling like they don’t have a friend or adult to confide in.”
American Teens are Taking Breaks from Social Media
American teenagers believe social media makes them feel informed and connected to friends and family. Still, 65% reported taking a voluntary break. Those who have not taken any breaks reported feeling afraid of missing out on social connections and the news.
Taking a Break from the Internet may be Good for Learning
Students who use the internet extensively on school days have been found to perform worse academically. Those who use the Internet very frequently reported lower levels of well-being. In a related report, intensive Internet use was associated with “less satisfaction with life, arriving late for school and lower education expectations.”
Multi-Tasking With Mobile Phones is Bad for Learning
This won’t surprise you at all: Social media use during learning activities negatively impacts reading speed, reading comprehension, and recall.
Video Games Can Teach Empathy
Some video games can help students develop critical competencies, such as collaboration, critical thinking, and communication skills. They can also help children and youth better understand their emotions, as well as those of their peers. Video games can be effective teaching tools and empathy machines.
How Does the Time Children Spend Using Digital Technology Impact their Mental Well-being, Social Relationships and Physical Activity?
This literature review by UNICEF argues that we need more comprehensive longitudinal studies to determine whether digital technology has a positive or negative impact on well-being. It also suggests that, in order to understand both the positive and harmful uses of digital technologies, we must listen to and learn from the voices and experiences of children and youth.
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