A Developmental Approach to Guiding Young Teens' Technology Use

Scientists are finding that during early adolescence, around ages 12-15, the brain undergoes one of the greatest remodeling projects of any other point in the lifespan. The purpose is to prepare teens for adulthood—to stand on their own, to make decisions, to secure resources, reproduce, form partnerships, and create community. And brain restructuring isn’t the only alteration.They experience changes in all spheres: neurological, cognitive, social, psychological, and physical. Meanwhile, technology is evolving at warp speed. A biological generation is 20-30 years, but scientists estimate that a “technological generation” is only seven years. According to Moore’s law, it could be even faster: The pace of technological change may actually be doubling every two years.

How does this rapid rate of technological innovation intersect with the tectonic changes of early adolescence—and how should you respond as a parent?

1. Inform yourself about technology.

It’s helpful to stay current with technology issues that can affect your teens, both for your own reality-testing and to help “scaffold” kids’ technology use. It’s helpful if parents can sort out fact from fiction about teens’ Internet use: to stand calm in the face of media-generated “moral panics”; to learn how teens are really using social media; and to understand the battle over our teens’ attention, intention, and self-direction.

For a thorough, research-based, and balanced consciousness-raising about technology, check out Howard Rheingold’s book Net Smart: How to Thrive Online. Rheingold’s book is filled with specific and helpful insights. For example: “There is nothing more important than for kids to learn how to identify fake communication.” Websites can be “cloaked” (sponsored in hidden ways by agenda-driven organizations whose involvement is not obvious, for example the Ku Klux Klan hosting a website on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr). Kids need to be detectives, he says, and use multiple strategies to triple-check the authority of sources. Many young people don’t understand how online content is actually generated—for example, that their Google searches are biased by algorithms generated by their previous searches, or that  editing discussions on Wikipedia can be useful to discover controversial themes about a topic.

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What Happens to Children When Parents Fight

When I was a child, my parents’ fights could suck the oxygen out of a room. My mother verbally lashed my father, broke jam jars, and made outlandish threats. Her outbursts froze me in my tracks. When my father fled to work, the garage, or the woods, I felt unprotected. Years later, when my husband and I decided to have children, I resolved never to fight in front of them.

“Children are like emotional Geiger counters,” says E. Mark Cummings, psychologist at Notre Dame University, who, along with colleagues, has published hundreds of papers over twenty years on the subject. Kids pay close attention to their parents’ emotions for information about how safe they are in the family, Cummings says. When parents are destructive, the collateral damage to kids can last a lifetime.

As a developmental psychologist I knew that marital quarreling was inevitable but I also knew that there had to be a better way to handle it. Cummings confirms: “Conflict is a normal part of everyday experience, so it’s not whether parents fight that is important.  It’s how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel that has important consequences for children.” Watching some kinds of conflicts can even be good for kids—when children see their parents resolve difficult problems, Cummings says, they can grow up better off.

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Nine Big Changes in Young Teens that You Should Know About

When children are young, it's easy to celebrate their developmental changes. We're excited to write down their first words and send photos of first steps to grandparents. We also naturally scaffold their learning by breaking tasks down into manageable parts. We speak in short, simple phrases when they're learning to talk; we open our arms toward them when they're beginning to walk; we ease their little arms into sleeves as they're learning to dress; and we practice, practice, practice tying their shoelaces with them.

At the same time, we mitigate their risks. We baby-proof the house, clear the coffee table of breakables, and put gates across stairwells.

But something breaks down midway on the journey to adulthood. Around about twelve years of age, our children's behavior can become perplexing to us. It can feel like they just want to push against us, replace us with peers, make bad decisions, and get into trouble. Suddenly, it's no longer clear to parents exactly what development we're supporting--and it's easy to back off, get judgmental, and start reacting. As a result, both parties can feel abandoned.

Fortunately, we have new information to help us understand this period. Advances in brain science and imaging now let us peer under the hood, so to speak, to see more clearly what is going on at this age. And if we understand the developmental changes better, we can better tailor our support to help them navigate through with greater ease.

Scientists are finding that the ages from 12-15 mark perhaps the period of greatest change of any other point in the lifespan. Modifications driven by thousands of years of evolution begin to remodel the teenage brain--just as they do in other mammals in their adolescence. Perhaps not surprisingly, these changes are organized around preparing for adulthood--for reproduction, and for securing sexual, social, and economic resources.

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How Can Parents Help Prevent Bullying in Middle School?

Bullying Prevention Awareness Month is over, and unfortunately it had a horrific run of high-profile tragedies: two teacher fatalities at the hands of students, several bullying-related suicides and attempted suicides, two Florida bullies charged with felonies, and a 14-year-old shooter charged as an adult. Once again, we’re left to face the grim reality that bullying is alive and well in our culture.

But there’s something that all of these cases had in common—and that the news media didn’t notice. All of the kids involved in these events were 12-14 years old.

No surprise, from a developmental perspective. The onset of puberty remodels the developing brain—both for humans and for many animal species—in a way that makes young adolescents especially sensitive to their social world. The reason for this can be understood through an evolutionary lens: Reproduction requires social skills—mating, parenting, fitting in to the social niche, coordinating to secure resources, taking care of the community, etc. So it would make sense that while bodies are being reshaped to produce offspring, brains would also simultaneously change to make us more socially receptive and active at that time.

How does puberty make teens more susceptible to bullying?

Recent research on the teen brain shows that adolescents, compared to both children and adults, are exceptionally sensitive to social dynamics. In brain-imaging studies, teen brains show more activation in regions that process rewards, motivations and emotions (the socioaffective circuitry in the subcortical, limbic regions) compared to children and adults. As a result, teens can feel more intensely, especially about social interactions. They more easily feel judged, threatened, and evaluated by others.

 

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How to Parent Emerging Adults

Compared to my or my parents' generation, young people today are taking longer to reach adulthood, thanks to the social and economic changes of modern society.  They take more time to explore relationships and to educate themselves for the complex information-based economy. Many face unemployment and have to live longer at home--and if they do work, it is not unusual to change jobs many times before they turn 30. Fewer are getting married and if they do, they marry later and have fewer children. Scholar Jeffrey Arnett, of Clark University in Massachusetts, now calls this period from ages 18- to 29-years old, emerging adulthood, a period so unique it deserves to be considered its own distinct phase of the lifespan.

Parenting this age group is also a new ball game. The biggest challenge--since emerging adults are in some ways grown up and in other ways not--is to figure out when to step in and assert parental authority and when to hold back...all the while remaining emotionally connected and respecting their growing autonomy. Arnett teams up with Oakland, CA writer Elizabeth Fishel to interview parents, professionals, and emerging adults, themselves, in order to gather the best advice on just where to find that parenting line... in areas of romance, job-hunting, communication, the Internet, and more.

I reviewed their book, When Will My Grown-Up Kid Grow Up? Loving and Understanding Your Emerging Adult, on the Greater Good Science Center website.

The important news is that our emerging adults still need our continued parenting. Rest assured, it does not mean that something is wrong. In fact when parents step in and help appropriately, their emerging adults do better in the long run--in their psychological well-being, their self-esteem, and even the standard of living they achieve.

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Time to Step Up for Disabled Children

The European Union and 127 countries think protecting disabled children's rights is a good thing to do, but the US Senate? Not. See the NY Times Editorial that takes the Senate to task. 

"The new United Nations report finds that children with disabilities are the least likely to receive health care or go to school and are among the most vulnerable to violence, abuse and neglect, especially if they are hidden away in institutions because of social stigma or parental inability to raise them."

"The disabled children and their communities would benefit if the children were accommodated in schools, workplaces, vocational training, transportation and local rehabilitation programs."

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How to Raise Your Child's Intelligence before Kindergarten

We parents spend a lot of time, energy, and money to advance our children's intelligence. Researchers have just made that job a lot easier by identifying the four most effective things we can do before kindergarten to give our children the best start on their intellectual development.

Full disclosure, I'm not a fan of the focus on "intelligence." It is too narrow a concept--the tests for it are culturally biased in favor of White middle class kids, there are many ways to be intelligent and successful that the tests don't measure, it is not predictive of life success, and social and emotional skills are just as important as intellectual ability. That said, in the right hands an intelligence test can be a useful diagnostic tool, and the term intelligence  offers one way to talk about intellectual, or I prefer the broader term "cognitive," skills. But I admit, I couldn't help but peek at this research if even to compare it against how I nurtured these qualities in my own children. A common theme jumped out at me, which I'll get to.

New York University researchers John Protzko, Joshua Aronson, and Clancy Blair looked at 74 interventions that were designed to raise children's intelligence from the prenatal period to kindergarten with the goal of uncovering the most effective ones. They included only studies that met the gold standard of research design--the randomized control study--and they published their findings in the January issue of of Perspectives on Psychological Science.

What did they discover? Four significant building blocks of intelligence in early childhood:

1. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) supplements for pregnant mothers and newborns - IQ gains of more than three and a half points.

Pregnant mothers are encouraged to take many kinds of supplements but only LC-PUFA--found in foods rich in Omega-3s--raised young children't IQs, either when pregnant mothers were given the supplement or it was added to infant formula. The fatty acids are thought to be essential building blocks for nerve cells in the prefrontal cortex--and the body can't produce them on its own. One study showed that very young children who received the supplements for 8 weeks showed more activation in the prefrontal cortex than those who did not.

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What Do Children Worry About and How Can Grown Ups Help?

When I was young, I worried so much that my parents called me Worrywart and bought me a stuffed toy with the same name. It wasn’t the best strategy—I was left feeling bewildered and wondering how to not worry—but what did parents know then? Research from the field of developmental emotion science finds that children who understand and manage their feelings are happier, have better relationships, and do better in school. But as a developmental psychologist I’ve often wished for resources to help parents deal with worrying in their children. So I was pretty excited when I found a lovely picture book recently at a professional conference: Is a Worry Worrying You?  by Ferida Wolff and Harriet May Savitz. This light-hearted problem solving “manual,” based on good emotion science, introduces young children to the idea that worry may be more optional and flexible than they believe—and that they may be able to do something about the suffering it causes them.

As a parent, I’m moved by the realistic examples in the book; as a developmental psychologist, I’m impressed by the sophistication of the advice contained it its slim 16 pages.

The cover illustrates the idea that we are more than our worries, and that worry is something that comes to us like an unwelcome visitor: “It doesn’t ask if it can enter. It just barges in. And it will stay as long as you let it.”

The feeling and qualities of worry are named and described. One of the first steps in managing a feeling is to recognize it—name it to tame it, we say: "A worry is a thought that stops you from having fun, from feeling good, from being happy." "Anyone can have a worry. Parents. Teachers. Brothers. Sisters. Friends." "You can feel tired from a worry. Or sad. Or sick. A worry can feel like a heavy sack is on your back. Only it isn’t there."

Most importantly, the authors offer many strategies for problem-solving. Research shows that young children ages 3-6 tend to ruminate, or spin their wheels, so they, especially, can benefit from help in problem-solving.  And older children who worry a lot believe they can’t solve the problem, though their problem-solving skills in other areas are equal to those of children who worry very little.

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Parents' Support is Good for Young Adults

Parents often feel guilty or conflicted about offering help to their young adults, ages 18-34. Research shows that both parents and their kids can feel that help at this age is "abnormal," but the young adults who are helped do better psychologically and professionally in the long run than those who don't receive help. Attaining adulthood in today's complex and harsh economy remains a "joint enterprise" between young people and the adults who love them.

See my full article here as part of the Greater Good Science Center's focus this week on Generation Y.

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Many Words for Snow and Few for Emotion

Teachers from a school near the Arctic circle who work with children of mostly Inuit families find that this unique cultural group has a "limited vocabulary for talking about emotions as well as limited strategies for managing their emotions effectively." Recently these teachers travelled to Yale where researchers have developed a comprehensive emotion skills curriculum for children that trains the entire school community ("everybody with a face," they say) how to Recognize, Understand, Label, Express, and Regulate emotions (acronym RULER).

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Mindfulness Practice in Schools? Slow down.

Meditation, my teacher used to say, is a vacation that you can give to yourself every time you tune in. For me, it’s a relief from stress and worry, a chance to hear the whispers of my own intuition, and space for my feelings that have not yet formed into words. More and more people are using contemplative practices, including educators who want to prepare their students with “21stcentury skills.” But a review in the June issue of the prestigious journal Child Development Perspectives warns that we should wait before adopting contemplative practices in schools: there just isn’t enough evidence on the benefits of contemplative practices for children to justify its widespread adoption.

There are many forms of contemplative or mindfulness practices—like meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and the newer Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction—and they vary widely, but all have in common an important way of concentrating attention. Practitioners are guided to focus on the emotions, thoughts or feelings that flow through their awareness, without judging or getting caught up in them. For adults, these practices have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, alleviate pain and illness, and change areas of the brain that are related to regulating emotions, attention and mental flexibility. Meditation practice is even associated with the lengthening of the DNA telomeres, suggesting that it may slow aging at the cellular level.

The research on contemplative practices with schoolchildren, however, is a different story. According to Penn State researchers Mark Greenburg and Alexis Harris, there hasn’t been enough research on the subject, and what studies have been done lack scientific rigor. The majority of studies suffer from design flaws: small numbers of children, a wide range of practices, different kinds of control groups, and varying periods of practice, which makes it difficult or impossible to compare or draw conclusions. Many measures rely on self-report—where the children themselves describe the effects they experience—which yields questionable data since children often want to please adult questioners. Sometimes reports come from teachers or parents who, themselves, know about—or even participate in—the programs, another potentially biased source of feedback. And no studies look at the long-term effects of mindfulness practice in kids.

This is not to say there isn’t reason to hope that contemplative practices can benefit children.

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Is Empathy Learned--or Are We Born with It?

Twenty-three years ago, my husband and I were strolling with our toddler on the steamy streets of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, where we were taking a time-out before diving into our careers. At eighteen months, Zai was toddling ahead of us, and I watched as an elderly woman approached her, cupped hands outstretched, in the universal request for food or money. I held my breath as Zai offered the woman her most precious possession: her stuffed kitty. I did not want to interfere with Zai’s gesture of compassion—but the kitty was her security object. Empathy—a concern for others—is present in children from the beginning but not much has been known about how it unfolds early in life. Studies of newborn babies show that they cry more to the sounds of other babies’ cries of distress than they do to equally loud sounds of other types or even to recordings of their own crying. Psychologists believed that while this reaction foreshadows later empathy and suggests a hard-wired orienting to other people’s feelings, empathic distress throughout the first year of life was a more contagious, reactive, egocentric kind of response. Upset in others simply triggered, or got merged with, a baby’s own feelings of anxiety or fear.

Empathy in Children: The New Research

Until recently, researchers believed that true empathy doesn’t emerge in children until the second year of life, after 12 months of age, when a more separate sense of self begins to be consolidated. Psychologists believed that to accurately appraise how another person feels required greater cognitive complexity. Children needed to be able to separate what others might be feeling from their own internal experience. But three researchers were interested to see whether true empathy might actually be evident earlier, in the first year of life: Israelis Ronit Roth-Hanania at The Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and Maayan Davidov at The Hebrew University, and Carolyn Zahn-Waxler at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Roth-Hanania, Davidov, and Zahn-Waxler went into the homes of 37 mostly white, middle- and upper-middle class infants from eight to 16 months and set up three distressing situations:

  1. The mother pretended to hit her finger with a toy hammer and be upset for one minute (and she avoided eye contact with her child in this minute so as to not bias the child’s response).
  2. The mother walked toward the baby and pretended to bump her knee, again showing distress for one minute (and again without making eye contact).
  3. The baby was shown a video of another baby crying for one minute.

All of the infants showed genuine empathy in emotional and cognitive ways. The younger babies’ feelings of concern for their mothers’ pain registered on their faces, from a fleetingly furrowed brow to sustained looks of sadness. Many cooed or made other sympathetic sounds. As the babies tried to figure out what had happened, their glances bounced from the hurt body part up to the mother’s face and back.  Some made questioning sounds, or they looked to the face of another adult for interpretation.

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