Who knows what goes on in the teenage brain? It’s a serious question. Is the mysterious landscape of the mind substantially different for adolescents today than it was when their parents’s generation was growing up?
This is the focus for two important new pieces of research into the neurological effects of new technology. The first, led by Imperial College, London, has recruited 2,500 11-12 year olds whose mobile phone use will be tracked over three years to determine the impact of radio frequency exposure on cognitive development. The second, carried out at University College London, concludes there is little evidence to support the theory that internet use is affecting adolescent brains.
Both fields of research tap into parental anxieties about children negotiating a world we never knew. The telephone in my day – cue lowing of mastodons – was not a personal accessory. It was something which, as a teenager, you asked permission to use (or used, for long comfortable chats about boys and outfits, when your parents were out. When our own mums told us that too many cartoons would addle our brains, it was a comfortable figure of speech. When I forcibly unplug my 16-year-old from his many devices – I have been known to take the internet router to bed with me – it’s mainly because I want him to get a decent night’s sleep, but also because of the lurking, unqualified fear that too much screen time is turning the space between his ears into a flickering, blue-lit void where synapses fizzle and die.
I’m reassured by the latest findings that nothing too dreadful is happening on a cellular level, but it doesn’t stop me thinking that my boy’s time would be better spent reading a book. Is this just the last stand of the Luddite? The effect of too much Huxley read under the covers in my own adolescence?
New technology has always carried a charge of danger. As Kathryn L. Mills, author of the University College report, points out, Socrates saw the humble stylus as the end of civilisation as he knew it. As recorded by Plato in the dialogue Phaedrus, the father of Western philosophy warned that the invention of the pen would “produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their own memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will damage the use of their own memory within them.”
This mirrors modern parental fears about the internet almost exactly. Brought up to respect the “well-stocked mind”, a kind of internal Rolodex of facts and ideas, we are suspicious of a vast, external database where information materialises and disappears at a click. We worry that knowledge gained in this way is somehow “disposable”, the cognitive equivalent of fast food that furs up the system and leaves no lasting nourishment. We worry about diminished attention span. We worry they’ll get stuck in a 2-D world, unable to negotiate society. We worry most, I suspect, about the sheer, unedited bulk of information streaming though young heads.
If parents, by simple virtue of their date of birth, are at a disadvantage in a wireless universe, they are not powerless. While there’s a question mark over the physiological effects of mobile phones – the new research centres on activity in the frontal and temporal lobes during adolescence when the brain is still developing – it seems sensible to limit the time the device is clamped to a teenager’s head A restrictive pay-plan is a brutally effective precaution (and probably the reason most kids I know spend far more time on their phones texting and screen-swiping than talking). As far as the internet goes, no amount of research will allay concerns about access to porn etc; this is a problem requiring much subtler parental intervention. Nor does eliminating the “death-ray” theory mean that it’s a brilliant idea for kids’ personal development to spend every waking hour checking their phones for the second, third and fourth opinion that social networks offer.
As far as the internet goes, it’s worth remembering that there are eminent scientists, among them Baroness Susan Greenfield, who remain unconvinced of the benign effect of it on young minds, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if, as the new findings for UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience suggest, all our fears were misplaced?
If adolescence is about anything, it is about expanding freedoms. If our children are to be the first generation who experience, from birth, full, creative freedom of cyberspace, what a brave new world, stripped of all Huxleian irony, that would be. But I’ll keep hold of the paperbacks, just in case.