Page 9 - Independent Schools Magazine
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Pupil Wellbeing ~ special report No-one realised smoking was bad for you in the 60’s...
Digital Media & the Adolescent Brain
Beth Kerr, Deputy Head Pastoral at Immanuel College, Hertfordshire, has begun an MSc in Child & Adolescent Mental Health and raises concerns about the overuse of social media...
The role of good pastoral care in schools, and its contribution to a child happily reaching his or her potential, has always been widely appreciated. However, the current mental health pandemic among our young people has added an intensity and urgency to its ef cacy that few could have predicted. The most seriously af icted children are treated and supported in CAMHS of course, but the threshold seems so high and it leaves behind a
sea of children who  ounder and struggle through adolescence without adequate support. We know that despite adolescence being the healthiest time of life physically, it
is the time in life when we are most likely to develop a mental health problem and moreover, between 50- 75% of the adult population with depression or anxiety developed their  rst symptoms during adolescence. This is an important time in life
and action is needed to understand it and  nd ways to protect young people.
Is it idealistic to think of a time when schools could play a real
role – not in responding and reacting to mental health issues, but proactively reducing them? I hope
not, but know that to do this, one needs to understand why children are so vulnerable to mental health challenges in today’s society, and recognise the pernicious relationship between the teenage brain and the overuse of the Internet (in particular social media and gaming). With
this endeavour in mind, I began an MSc in Child and Adolescent Mental Health at UCL last year, and was fascinated by the content of one
of my lectures on the adolescent brain given by Dr Bettina Hohnen. [extracts below]
There is general consensus that unchecked overconsumption of any substance, including digital media can be problematic. The impact of the latter however is compounded by its nefarious attack on the typical protective factors that usually
shield young people. It is the thief of family time and the correlation found in some studies between
the age a child lost interest in their hobby and the age they got a smart phone is perhaps unsurprising?
The Internet is the wolf in sheeps’ clothing – allowed into childrens’ bedrooms, pockets and in many cases unregulated 24-7 access. Does what we know about neuroplasticity
push the idea that if processes learnt on a computer are repeated often enough, this could make a child reprogram their own processing? If so, their autoregulation, their ability to communicate, assess situations and make choices becomes dependent on their interaction with the online world rather than any innate sense developed through
a range of actual experiences and real life relationships? If technology is going to become the primary modality of their boundary and relational exploration then surely, we as adults, parents and teachers have to be fairly con dent in its teaching!
Whilst neuroplasticity of the teenage brain is arguably a nascent science,
I believe that Dr Hohnen’s outline, along with a stark warning about the strength of digital media permeation is something that should be integrated into all PGCE training courses. Unfortunately,
cogs of such large bureaucratic wheels invariably turn slowly, and so perhaps a more immediate and effective solution would be to integrate it into individual schools’ inset sessions. In addition, I am also mindful that we cannot absolve ourselves of our social responsibility
as educators to convince parents
to unite with us, fortifying our campaign to give pupils a subset of skills that will enable them to cope with the relentless pressures of the modern world which are intensi ed by the Internet, at the very time their brains are so malleable. Dr Mari Swingle describes the concept of technology overriding desirable traits or eclipsing developmental phases
as ‘interference’ in a persuasive book that would also form part of my staff inset and parent education programme. We must also be mindful that research is clear in showing that most online behaviour and negative experiences that threaten well-being are mirrored in the of ine world. This means that risk is exacerbated in vulnerable children.
JK Rowling once said, ‘Whilst youth cannot know how age feels, old men are guilty if they forget what it was to be young’ – and so, if
we believe that being young is still about discovery, transition, passion and risk, then let’s use our advanced knowledge of neuroplasticity and
its impact to make it safer, happier and more human for children and adolescents.
The adolescent brain - by Clinical Psychologist Dr Bettina Hohnen
Adolescence is a time of signi cant brain development. Insights into the adolescent brain made possible by advances in brain technology have revealed brain correlates that helps make sense of behaviour
at this important time of life. Puberty sets off activation of a number of important changes in key brain areas. Three important changes occur. Firstly, there is a re- orientation to social and emotional processing that is being described as a sensitive period for learning about self and exploring one’s self in the social hierarchies of life. This perhaps helps us understand a teens’ obsession with their iPhone which is where social interaction often takes place nowadays. This
is the time when young people
are overwhelmingly motivated to answer questions such as who am I? how will I be valued? how do I  t
in? The result is a powerful desire by most teenagers for acceptance and an excruciating sensitivity to feelings of being admired, valued and disrespected. These are the driving forces behind social media use. Secondly, adolescents have
a natural inclination to novelty
and exploration, with an increased desire for sensation seeking which we understand to be due to the heightened response of the reward centres of the brain. This is at the same time as the third set of brain changes, which are in the control centre of the brain situated in the frontal lobes which is reorganising and lagging in it’s ability to always make timely, well thought through decisions. This poor behavioural regulation is particularly evident when teenagers are with their peers resulting in a signi cant increase
in the likelihood of making an
impulsive or ‘bad’ decision when with their friends.
Bear in mind that adolescence is generally a time of heightened brain plasticity. This means the brain is particularly malleable and ready for development so experience at this time will be particularly impactful
in shaping brain circuits. In other words, experience and the neural imprint it leaves is greater at this time, so how adolescents spend their time has a lasting effect.
It is the combination of overwhelming social motivations and the desire for novelty and excitement while the regulation skills are struggling to keep
up that makes technology so destructive during the adolescent years. Their brains are driving them towards their iPhones as a matter or urgency just as a child
learning to walk can focus on little else while learning. These
are drives that have evolutionary relevance. So what can we do?
We need to understand their motives and drives and honour
a teenager’s need for social interaction. At the same time we need to recognise that experience is crucial in developing their
brain circuits and their ability to regulate their behaviour is reduced at this time. Therefore controls and boundaries are essential. This does not mean authoritarian, military-like, punishing or shaming kind of controls. It means clear, calmly delivered boundaries from a joined-up approach between home and school that protect the child from themselves while their brains are developing.
Independent Schools Magazine 9

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