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What do we know about the effects of Internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain?

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Presentation given to Serpentine Gallery as part of 89plus Marathon 2013.

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  • My name is Kate Mills and I am a student at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience here in London where I study brain development--focusing particularly on brain development during adolescence, which can be defined as starting around puberty and ending when an individual has attained a roughly stable independent role in society. In a brief 15 minutes I am going to attempt to address this very large question: "What do we know about the effects of internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain”
  • I'm sure many of you have seen headlines like these before, making claims that scientists know that the internet is rewiring our brains, or disrupting typical brain development. There are actually quite a few books on this very topic. And of course there are neuroscientists out there making very scary claims like the internet is destroying your brain.
  • However, I want to make another claim about this. Now some of you might disagree with me, which is great because I think we should all discuss this together, but I thought I'd let you know how I feel about this before the rest of the talk.I don't think we know much at all about the effects of internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain!
  • So what I'm going to do for most of my time up here is give everyone a crash-course on what we know about the adolescent brain. And then I'll discuss a bit about how we might begin to measure the effects "the internet" or networked culture on brain development. There are three key things I want to tell you about the adolescent brain:It is undergoing substantial developmentHow we navigate social interactions changes during adolescenceand the adolescent brain is sensitive to environmental influences
  • For a long time we thought the brain was fully developed in early childhood.Luckily, with the advent of MRI we now have the ability to see how the living human brain changes from birth to old age. Using this technology we now know that the brain continues to develop in both itsstructure as well as its function, across adolescence. And I'll unpack that a bit more.
  • And the changes are not occurring at the same time across the whole brain. Actually, areas of the brain that are involved in basic sensory processing or movement develop earlier than areas of the brain involved in more complex processes such as inhibiting inappropriate behavior, planning for the future, and understanding other people. These and other complex processes rely on areas in the prefrontal cortex and temporal cortex, and as you'll see in this quick video, these areas are undergoing more structural change in adolescence than in childhood. This is a video from a research group in Oslo. So you can see the yellow, which represents the most grey matter change is moving from areas of the brain near the back which are involved sensory processing to areas in the front like the prefrontal cortex and temporal cortex. 
  • We also know that the brain is changing in organisation and function during adolescence, which relates to performance in a number of domains. 
  • But I want to focus on the social domain in particular because of its relevance to the question of how internet use and networked culture affects the adolescent brain. Adolescence is a time of change in how we navigate the social environment. We start spending more time with peers and the opinions of our peers become very important. We start caring more about how others perceive us and our social identity.
  • And this is completely adaptive behavior. I use the word navigate quite purposefully because if we think about the end point of adolescence as attaining this independent, roughly stable role in society, in a species as social as our own, we must become very good at navigating complex social relationships. 
  • There are a number of cognitive processes that are involved in interacting with and understanding other people, and we can use functional MRI to see what areas of the brain are active when we engage in important social tasks likeunderstanding the intentions or emotions behind facial expressionsor understanding social emotions like guilt or embarrassment.
  • Tasks like these consistently recruit a number of brain regions in the prefrontal and temporal cortex, which we refer in our lab as "the social brain"And we know from studies like the one I showed you earlier, but also from studies we have conducted in our lab, that these areas of the social brain are changing significantly in structure across adolescence, as you can see here.
  • And although adolescents and adults use the same areas of the brain during a number of social tasks like understanding intentions and social emotions, these tasks all show a similar decrease in activity across age in this medial prefrontal cortex area. This figure shows the results of a recent meta-analysis of many studies, and these studies all show that adolescents use this part of the prefrontal cortex MORE than adults when doing the social tasks listed here.
  • Okay, and the third point I want to make about the adolescent brain is that it is still sensitive to environment influences. What I'm showing here is an image from a study looking at post-mortem human brain tissue, which was conducted at the Croatian Institute for Brain Research. This painstaking work involved counting the number of dendritic spines--which contain synapses, and synapses we can think of as connection points between brain cells--they counted the number of dendritic spines in a section of the prefrontal cortex in brains of different ages.
  • What they, and others, have found is that we have the greatest number of connection points in childhood and early adolescence, and many of these connection points are lost across adolescence and do not reach the adult level until the end of the third decade. This means that we have an excess amount of connections when we are children, and almost half of these connections can be lost in adolescence. We refer to this process as synaptic pruning.We know that experience influences what connections are kept and subsequently strengthened.And this can really be viewed as a tradeoff in adolescence: unused connections are lost but there is an increase in efficiency because myelin is increasing around the connections that are kept.
  • Okay, I hope that was a helpful crash-course on the adolescent brain for everyone.
  • Back to the main question--what do we know about the impact of these specific environmental factors--internet use and networked culture-- on the adolescent brain?
  • This is a visualization of the internet and all its interlinking beauty. It's quite hard for me to say that we know anything definitively about how "the internet" affects something, because it seems to me that using "the internet" involves a lot of things. As a scientist, I wonder
  • How do we measure internet use? And what is wrapped up in this concept that needs to be pulled apart so we know what is exactly affecting what?For instance, is internet use time spent looking at screens?
  • Or is internet use time spent physically immobile? Which we do know can effect both the developing and adult brain.
  • Or is internet use shallow browsing? This seems to be one of the big fears about the internet--that instant access to information is creating a less attentive society with very shallow knowledge. This reminds me of how Socrates warned his students that the habit of writing things down would ruin their ability to remember! Is this fear regarding the effects of internet use just another example of fear of new technology?
  • And given the large presence of the internet in many societies, where many functional adults use the internet on a daily basis for both social and work reasons, is internet use just another form of tool use?
  •  Now to give everyone an example of a clever study that, I believe, gets at the question of how the internet could be affecting our brains is this study by Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues. They were trying to measure how having access to information affects our ability to remember specific information, nicknamed the google effect. A group of undergraduate students were given a list of bits of information to memorize, like an ostrich's eyeball is bigger than its brain, but were also shown the location of folders on computer where these bits of information would be stored. Now, there was a lot of bits of information to memorize, but a smaller number of locations where the information could be stored. All of the students were told that they would be quizzed to recall the bits of information later, but some of the students were told that they would have access to the information later. When students expected to have future access to the information, they were more likely to remember the location of the information but not the information itself. This study provided scientific evidence for "the google effect," and now we need to ask ourselves how we feel about it. 
  • Okay I just want to talk very briefly about networked culture, or what being connected could mean for adolescent development.
  • And this comes right back to the concept of navigating our social environment and tool use. Just like with the internet, being connected can be thought of as a tool, and adolescents are not passive creatures helpless to environmental influences! This is a big issue here--there seems to be a lot of talk about how the environment affects adolescent brain development and less talk about how adolescents interact with environmental factors like the internet and like networking in order to strengthen the skills and connections necessary to navigate the social environment into successful adulthood
  • And I think there are many examples of adolescents using networked culture and the internet AS TOOLS. This is an site which connects young people to each other in a peer mentoring scheme centered around mental health issues.This is a site started by a teenager, TaviGevinson, for adolescent girls to discuss the issues they care about. And I'm sure we can find a lot more examples about how young people have used the internet and networked culture as tools here at the Marathon!
  • Thank you again for having me and I want to thank my collaborators and mentors.
  • And I want everyone to know that these slides, with suggestions for further reading and references, are available here.

Transcript

  • 1. What do we know about the effects of Internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain? Kate Mills Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience kathryn.l.mills@gmail.com
  • 2. What do we know about the effects of Internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain? …not much!
  • 3. What do we know about the effects of Internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain? •It is undergoing substantial development • How we navigate social interactions changes • It is sensitive to environmental influences
  • 4. The adolescent brain is undergoing substantial development Structural MRI Functional MRI
  • 5. The adolescent brain is undergoing substantial development Structural MRI Grey matter contains brain White matter is made up of long cells and connections fibres that carry signals between brain regions …in its physical structure, organisation and function.
  • 6. The adolescent brain is undergoing substantial development volume Grey matter age (years) Grey matter contains brain White matter is made up of long cells and connections fibres that carry signals between brain regions …in its physical structure, organisation and function.
  • 7. The adolescent brain is undergoing substantial development White matter volume volume Grey matter age (years) age (years) Grey matter contains brain White matter is made up of long cells and connections fibres that carry signals between brain regions …in its physical structure, organisation and function.
  • 8. The adolescent brain is undergoing substantial development …in its physical structure, organisation and function.
  • 9. The adolescent brain is undergoing substantial development …in its physical structure, organisation and function.
  • 10. How we navigate social interactions changes during adolescence
  • 11. How we navigate social interactions changes during adolescence
  • 12. How we navigate social interactions changes during adolescence Functional MRI
  • 13. How we navigate social interactions changes during adolescence The Social Brain TPJ dmPFC pSTS ATC
  • 14. How we navigate social interactions changes during adolescence Understanding intentions Social emotion Irony comprehension Self/Other personality traits Self appraisals Emotional theory of mind Reciprocity
  • 15. The adolescent brain is sensitive to environmental influences
  • 16. The adolescent brain is sensitive to environmental influences • Experience influences what connections are kept and strengthened. • Trade-off in adolescence: losing unused connections for increased efficiency.
  • 17. What do we know about the effects of Internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain?
  • 18. What do we know about the effects of Internet use and networked culture on the adolescent brain?
  • 19. Internet use
  • 20. How do we measure internet use? Is internet use... Time spent looking at screens?
  • 21. How do we measure internet use? Is internet use... Time spent physically immobile?
  • 22. How do we measure internet use? Is internet use... Shallow browsing?
  • 23. How do we measure internet use? Is internet use... Tool use?
  • 24. Effective tool use? “When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it.” (Sparrow et al., 2011)
  • 25. Networked culture
  • 26. Tool use and adolescence Successful adulthood
  • 27. Tool use and adolescence
  • 28. Thank you! UCL Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group Sarah-Jayne Blakemore Anne-LiseGoddings Maarten Speekenbrink IroiseDumontheil Laura Wolf Jay Giedd LivClasen
  • 29. These slides are available on slideshare! go here: http://tinyurl.com/89plusKate or email me: kathryn.l.mills@gmail.com
  • 30. Of particular interest: Choudhury& McKinney, 2013: Digital media, the developing brain and the interpretive plasticity of neuroplasticity. Transcultural Psychiatry Choudhury et al., 2012: Rebelling against the brain: Public engagement with the ‘neurological adolescent’. Social Science & Medicine Blakemore & Mills, 2013: Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing? Annual Review of Psychology Brainstorm, a scratch play about the teenage brain written and performed by teenagers. Islington Community Theatre. Also, check out Vaughan Bell’s blog: mindhacks.com
  • 31. Sources Aubert-Broche et al., (2013). NeuroImage. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2013.05.065 (Slides 7-8) Tamnes, et al., (2013). NeuroImage. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.11.039 (Slide 9) Blakemore & Mills (in press). The Cognitive Neurosciences Fifth Edition. (Slide 14) Blakemore, S-J (2012). Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2011.110221 (Slide 15) Mills, KL (2013). figshare. doi:10.6084/m9.figshare.706363 (Slide 15) Petanjek et al., (2011). PNAS. doi:10.1073/pnas.1105108108 (Slides 16-17) Sparrow et al., (2011). Science. doi:10.1126/science.1207745 (Slide 25)