Everything you know about teenage brains is bullshit




Internet and brain development?

Edit: from when the story title was “Don’t believe everything you read about the Internet and brain development”


Interesting article. It’s likely too early to tell how kids are being affected yet. I seem to recall a famous quotation about people’s memories being affected when the printing press came about, but can’t seem to retrieve it.
I do wonder whether short-term memory tests would shed a candle’s-worth of light on the issue.
Great video also. I love seeing old internet stuff. Did the phone company discount your $1300 bill?


There wasn’t any scientific evidence that smoking causes cancer for a long time either. It’s very hard to do controlled studies on adolescent brains with all the influences on them besides the internet.


There were just a lot of smokers with Cancer around. Are there lots of twenty somethings with defective brains around that we are searching to find an explanation for or are we letting crotchety old people decide we should research how kids are rotting their brains and how balls should never end up in neighbors yards?


What about recent recommendations from the pediatrics association warning against youngster getting “Screen time”

I hear people quote that and I find the idea dubious that looking at a mobile is good for kid, but somehow an image of a mobile on TV would hurt their precious little brains.


This stuff.

It strikes me that there are a lot of correlations between kids that receive little attention from their parents and have a variety of problems, but there is this folksy assumption that if those kids spent more of the time they are being ignored climbing trees rather than watching cartoons this would somehow alleviate the problem.


Cute title. Cute article. But it is it’s own kind of bullshit. First, “everything” we know isn’t either defined by or solely encompassed by the discipline of neuroscience. Psychology is not reducible to neurobiology despite what some neuroscientists like to think, teach or read. Second, danah Boyd is an intriguing researcher but a lousy psychologist and anthropologist and her work is full of holes and misinterpretations of data related to teen behavior. Third, you buried the lede of your own article: absence of neurological markers or current endophenotypes doesn’t equate to “no effect.” Fourth, no effect doesn’t mean no harm. If, for example, the individual teens being studied have no decrease in hippocampal volume when exposed to internet /digital media it doesn’t mean digital media exposure doesn’t play a complicated role in exacerbation of depression or problems with memory. The only thing we should take away from your article is: we don’t know what we don’t know, yet and we should cautiously read accounts of adolescent brain development and reductionist explanations of what plasticity is all about.


Everything you know about teenage brains is bullshit

Everything about teenage brains is bullshit, you know

There, I fixed it for you.


Cute title. Cute article.

First, “everything” we know isn’t either defined by or solely encompassed by the discipline of neuroscience.

She didn’t say that. But if you’re setting up a false argument in your next sentence as you did, I guess oversimplification and misrepresentation is the way to go.

danah Boyd is an intriguing researcher but a lousy psychologist and anthropologist and her work is full of holes and misinterpretations of data related to teen behavior.

You think Dana Boyd is intriguing and lousy. Thanks, that was enlightening.

you buried the lede of your own article: absence of neurological markers or current endophenotypes doesn’t equate to “no effect.” Fourth, no effect doesn’t mean no harm.

You’re propping up more false arguments based upon things she didn’t imply.

The only thing we should take away from your article is: we don’t know what we don’t know, yet and we should cautiously read accounts of adolescent brain development and reductionist explanations of what plasticity is all about.

If that’s all you and the mouse in your pocket took away from the piece, then I think that says more about you and your mouse than the piece itself.

Also… paragraphs. Look into them.


There was scientific evidence. That cigarette companies refused to acknowledge this is irrelevant.

“It’s very hard to do controlled studies on adolescent brains with all the influences on them besides the internet.”

It’s very easy to claim that this is happening, though.


I’m 59 and am a keen internet and computer user for the last 25 years or so. I grew up without computers or the internet. Back then it was TV that rotted your brain. Lots of discussion when I was young on the effects of television on our young brains. Before that it was comic books destroying our ability to read real books of some literary merit. I think there maybe some merit talking about computer use and obesity. Not as a cause but a contributing factor in some kids having a more sedentary lifestyle these days. But as a former teacher, I do like to see active kids replacing TV time with computer time. Kids should be supervised. Not that you watch over their internet time but more introducing them to alternative things they can do with computers and the internet. Particularly creative uses of the computer. I suppose I would dispute the whole concept of “digital natives”. Behind this concept is the idea that you need to be born into this technology to use it with ease and competently. It’s an out for adults to learn something new and a sign of some anxiety about digital technology. A lot of adults have digital anxiety. That you can hand a kid an iPad and they’ll find their way around in no time flat is just a sign of how damn easy they are to use. And their minds are not set into the idea that this is a computer and, therefore, difficult. I think talking about technology and its effects on the brain, a bigger problem is digital anxiety in many older adults. And the idea that computers and the internet rot young brains is more a symptom of this anxiety. This anxiety is more historical and cultural than anything to do with the physiological wiring of the brain.


It’s not that the internet is affecting teenage brains as much as the internet is opening up pathways to the worst parts of the teenage brain that are already there.
Teens are susceptible to many different influences, and the internet caters to the worst part of that. As a teacher, I don’t find the kids to have changed, I simply find them to be unable to control their worst tendencies because of the siren song of being online.


There’s one from eighteen hundred years earlier than the printing press: Plato, in Phaedrus.

O most ingenious Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves.



With that out of the way, what do you make of the anti-anecdote anecdote toward the end of her article?

We do not lack for test subjects on this issue. There is now a sizable number of persons in the mid-late twenties and early thirties who have grown up with the internet, which is to say they have had significant exposure during their adolescent developmental stages. We have not yet determined whether that exposure can be directly connected to an increased likelihood of, say, Alzheimer’s disease. But if it is the cause of neurological problems, I think it’s reasonable to say they sure aren’t manifesting for the time being. We have no generational neurological epidemics being reported by the scientific or medical communities.

Maybe I am being too cavalier with my own health, but as a 30-year-old who has been exposed to the internet since 1995, I can say the internet has provided me with a lot over the years. Is that worth a neurological deficiency? Maybe it is…


Now, back to intelligent discussion…and your points.

  1. We do, in fact, lack for test subjects. Its unethical to expose certain adolescents and not others to stimuli that may prove to be harmful.
  2. It’s fairly impossible to control for other potentiating, negative side effects when considering “Internet use” and whether or not it actually “rewires the brain.” As the author wrote, all experience “rewires” the brain in a certain sense. That’s just another way of talking about learning (experience-dependent plasticity). It is far too early to tell whether adolescent brains, which are already particularly and uniquely susceptible to the development of pathology, are negatively impacted by certain kinds, amounts or frequencies of contact with digital media.
  3. Whether something is “changed” neurologically is only ONE way of searching for negative sequelae of internet/digital media use. Think of it this way: in many cases with clinical depression, there are NO (that is zero) biological markers for the disorder. In some cases, you can find gray matter volume changes or changes in the nucleus accumbens or amygdalae during autopsies that do not show up in MRI scans during the person’s lifetime…or perhaps the person never had an MRI. But we would never say that certain experiences don’t cause or exacerbate this person’s depression, just because we can’t find any neurological markers. The same may be true (and is, true) regarding Internet use, the teenage brain, and negative impact.

Try to think beyond “neurological deficiency” as the be-all-end-all of whether or not there may be negative impacts of Internet/digital media use.

As to whether we have “no generational neurological epidemics” being reported…we most certainly do. Rates of ADHD diagnoses have risen 42% since 2006. Many consider this “of epidemic proportion.” Rates of all kinds of mood disorders have also risen significantly during the same time period. Some even argue that the Internet/digital media cause ADHD. Of course, it doesn’t…but it isn’t true that we have no significant neurological epidemics. All mental health disorders and learning disabilities could (from a neurologist’s perspective), be described as neurobiological in etiology.

Is the author saying everything you know about the teenage brain is wrong? (referring to the general public)…and even she doesn’t know anything that isn’t bullshit? I’m sure she isn’t saying that or she’s wasting a lot of time in graduate school or wherever she is studying right now. She’s saying, I think, that most of the public discourse about adolescent brain development, from a neurobiological perspective, is mis- or mal-informed. To that, I’d heartily agree. She’s wrong that everything out there is bullshit, though. There is a ton that is known about the adolescent brain. It’s just mostly descriptive and conclusions are highly inferential. That’s different than bullshit. Saying “this is how it is, and this is how it works,” if those conclusions purport to offer final explanations…then it’s bullshit. I just don’t think this author wrote a very smart article. She did, however, attract trolls and get clicks…and that’s what most articles of this type are all about.

In terms of your question, it just shows that the author is still a student and that this article isn’t terribly scientific, although she is ostensibly arguing against ‘our’ understanding of the neurobiology of the teen brain.

Whether you or I love the internet, or we think it helped us or harmed us, or is harming us, or harms some teens, but not others, or “rewires” some teen brains for the worse (a specious concept to begin with) isn’t the point. Mills could have saved you, me and everyone else the trouble by just writing:
“I’m a neuroscientist studying the adolescent brain and I just want to say that the public discourse about adolescent brain development is way ahead of our actual scientific findings and evidence.”

There are complicated reasons why neuroscientists and non-neuroscientists alike are rushing to get the results, however tentative, into the public conversation. Some reasons are financial, and some are based in real, earnest efforts to shift research priorities towards the earlier pubertal period because these researchers sincerely believe that that’s an understudied, underfunded, under treated, critical time in adolescent life. Check out Ron Dahl’s work at Cal…he’s the main proponent of this position, but there are plenty of others.

[mod edit: removed trollbait]


I suppose it’s kinda crazy talking about the internet as a homogenous medium like television. Are kids watching catch-up television, researching an essay, checking out techniques for a craft project, posting a dubious selfie on Facebook, playing a game, or learning how to program a game, listening to music, chatting in a chatroom… These are all very diverse activities requiring active and passive engagement in a range of activities and skills. I don’t see the technology as being bad. Working with my young niece, learning how to weave bracelets using coloured embroidery floss, we had trouble with the questionable written instructions so we checked YouTube for some amateur instructional videos. We could quickly see how to start the weavings and the technique we were trying to learn. Following written instructions can be frustrating. It’s much more natural to have someone show you how it’s done. We also found lots of patterns for our weavings. What a fabulous resource for these kids! As a 59-year-old, I’m enthusiastic about this technology. My background is art and craft teaching and I love the internet. It’s just a matter of knowing we can use it in all sorts of ways. A lot of people talking about the harm caused by the internet probably don’t have any idea that it’s a terrific resource for old traditional crafts, for example.


"Kathryn Mills reports that discussion has become dominated by unconvincing ‘experts’ and scaremongering. "

Prescient byline


1-2. I understand what you mean about eliminating as many incidental factors as possible. But if it would be (as you correctly suggest) unethical to organize the kind of isolation necessary to properly test the hypothesis, won’t it always be the case that “the public discourse about adolescent brain development is way ahead of our actual scientific findings and evidence” ?

3.RE: depression, is this also true of genetic markers? It’s not immediately relevant to the discussion, but I was always under the impression that clinical depression is a result of ‘hard-wired’ chemical or neurological imbalances that can be (but aren’t always) triggered or exacerbated by external stimuli.

As for present-day neurological epidemics, I hear you. Surely there are more public health problems of this kind than I initially gave credit for. Still, I view the example of ADHD a little suspiciously. Is ADHD more prevalent or are we just more likely to test for it now (or, in some cases, improperly diagnose it) than a few decades ago? At the same time, I understand that your example is just that and it does not necessarily negate the point.

My knee-jerk suspicion of the hypothesis that exposure leads to some kind of neurological problem is anecdotal, not scientific. Hopefully that means the internet has had an influence in encouraging self-awareness? I suppose after years of hearing that there is something deeply wrong with Millenials and younger folks, I see the argument about whether we really are, informally speaking, fucked in the head to be an ideological contention, and not just a matter for science. Disingenuous assholes like Mark Bauerlein (author of ‘The Dumbest Generation’) engender this kind of sensitivity, I guess.

Thanks for your reply, by the way, and for engaging with someone less well grounded in the science.


Off topic for a moment: It’s true…very hotly debated…about ADHD, incorrectly so. I think Stephen Hinshaw’s recent book (The ADHD Explosion) will either put an end to the debate or at the very least, clarify it significantly. I trust his work (and the man, too). His research demonstrates pretty convincingly that the spike in ADHD diagnoses since 2006 is related to the change in federal and state funding patterns for schools and school districts that have been incentivized to make diagnoses of ADHD. Worldwide prevalence rates for ADHD are 5-6%. U.S. rates were closer to 13%! (As high as 30% in North Carolina). It wasn’t something in the water. It’s a fantastic book. Shows how NCLB (No Child Left Behind) and the heavy emphasis on test scores, combined with school’s ability leave ADHD-diagnosed kids out of the calculation enabled them to report “higher” test scores. It’s complex, but the spike seems reasonably explained by this exact same pattern of funding, across multiple states in the U.S.

For Davidasposted: So nice to have an actual discussion! Thank you!
1-2: Yes, public discourse is always ahead of scientific findings. But in 2009, Valerie Reyna, one of the country’s leading cognitive neuroscientists said publicly that she means to close the gap:
“Ordinarily there is a lag time of approximately 20 to 30 years between discovery…and implemention in the real world. We aim to accelerate this process…so that findings can inform both public policy regarding investments in future research and educational practice regarding training the innovators and problem solvers of the future.”

I think Mills (the author of this piece) and I agree that both the rush to get the results out and the mis-translation that inevitably occurs when scientific “results” enter the popular press, is causing problems.

  1. Re: depression. It’s the same argument I’ve been making in these comments. We take the neurobiological as the “really real” the “basis” of all phenomena. Any neuroscientist who says that neuroscience REALLY explains things, is full of crap. It’s one part of the elephant (as the old story of the blind man and the elephant suggests). There is no “proof” that neurology REALLY explains things, although many neurologists think it does. But many psychologists believe that depression is the result of “internalized negative self-objects.” Others, like me, have a bio-psycho-social approach. But we’re all just making up stories. The question is: does our story help.

Finally, I so very much appreciate your perspective. I write books/articles on the topic of digital media and youth. Would you be open to being interviewed at some point? Currently write a column about “millennials” (sorry, I know its a stupid moniker, but I didn’t make it up!)…and your perspective on this whole issue of “neuro-enthusiasm” versus “neuro-scare-mongering.”

Bottom line: Choudhury (from McGill) and McKinney’s paper on this very topic is thoughtful and very relevant. Here’s a quote:

“In this paper, then, we are less concerned with whether we really are being wired
for distraction, superficiality, and unsociability (although certainly some of these
fears may indeed be well founded), and more with whether existing neuroscientific
evidence derived largely from neuroimaging studies can indeed resolve these questions
as the media suggests. We are interested in how brain-based arguments
rhetorically function in these debates, particularly when cerebral language and
neuro-discourses increasingly assume a privileged explanatory status in explaining
and intervening in human behaviour. With anxieties about digital media centering
on adolescents, who are the heaviest users and often the first adopters of these
media, we hope our analysis will provide needed critical perspective that can clarify,
if not shift, the terms of the debate.”