We’re too fond of bemoaning teenagers, claiming that they have it easy compared to the previous generation. People said the same thing to me when I was a kid. They may not have mortgage and rent problems to worry about, but they certainly have a lot to deal with.
The truth is that technology has altered and shaped society far quicker than any of us could have predicted. Where most of us grew up cosseted and protected from harmful stimuli such as drugs and pornography, our children can be exposed to these influential experiences at any age.
What hasn’t changed to help us to adjust to this barrage of sensory overload, is the delicate biology responsible for transitioning a child’s brain into an adult one. The teenage years are traumatic for most individuals, both physically and mentally in terms of raging hormones, physical maturation and a whole raft of conflicting emotions to navigate.
Yes, we all went through this and survived admirably, but we didn’t have the additional pressures of the all-pervasive nature of social media bearing down on us at the time. To add to the misery of conforming to certain physical standards and social statuses, adolescents are pushed through rote learning exercises to prepare them for the constricting social hierarchies of the average workplace.
This is one massive set of challenges to face, particularly in light of new research which suggests that children’s brains have dormant pathways in the regions responsible for complex social skills and empathy.
A team of researchers from University College London and Cambridge University published a study in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in January of this year, citing that the teenage years are when brain maturation takes place, allowing these pathways to effectively awaken.
Roughly 300 volunteers between the ages of 14–25 years, were scanned regularly to discover the changes in functional connectivity. These scientists were specifically looking at how brain regions communicated. They found two main changes that occur during adolescence. Those regions related to vision and movement showed a huge increase in connectivity, as you would expect, but what was less predictable were the structural alterations in regions responsible for social interactions.
I often hear adults complaining that their pre-teens are thoughtless or selfish, some saying that they have no concern for the feelings of others. What this study shows, is that those pre-teens have not yet experienced the switching on of those emotional mechanisms in the brain, or as psychologists would put it; they have not developed their ‘theory of mind’.
Functional MRI scans over time saw these empathy regions physically alter. Some connections weakened while other neural pathways strengthened. This disruptive pattern of change requires a great deal of energy and therefore leaves a high level of metabolic waste chemicals in brain tissues. It’s probably why teenagers seem to require so much sleep, since this is the most efficient way for those toxic compounds to get flushed out by cerebral spinal fluid.
With so many alterations occurring in the brain at once, it makes sense that this renders teenagers particularly vulnerable to mental health conditions and stress. Statistics back this up, with steeper rises in anxiety and depression rates occurring during adolescence than in younger children.
The lead scientist, Professor Ed Bullmore, states; “These results show us that active remodelling of brain networks is ongoing during the teenage years and deeper understanding of brain development could lead to a deeper understanding of the causes of mental illness in young people.”
That’s good news for us all, providing funding to further these studies is ongoing. At least now we have scientific proof supporting behaviour which should educate parents and provide an explanation for their child’s development. Patience and understanding are always applied to teens who struggle with maths, English, or sports for that matter. It should also be extended to include difficulties with social interactions and recognising the feelings and needs of others.
Parents are happy to lend a hand with homework in standard school subjects, or to practice team sports, but less willing to sit down and explain situations that could hasten the development of empathy.
Let’s hope these scientists lead the way for a different kind of homework activity, one that prioritises good mental health alongside academic success.
We are living in precarious times. Teenagers may be in a low risk category for the current crisis, but they are just as worried about their loved ones as adults. Please try to understand that they will not necessarily make the same assumptions regarding transmission and safe guarding as an adult may. Take the time to explain and you might just be the trigger that switches on their dormant empathic neural connections.