The Adolescent Brain and Multitasking

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Next week is Thanksgiving Break. Woo-hoo! The break is much needed. I’m looking forward to Thanksgiving dinner, maybe some hiking, and lots of time with family. That means I get a whole straight 9 days to be with my teenage son. Don’t get me wrong, I love him! But I thought I’d prep a bit, and so this past week, I reached for my copy of The Teenage Brain and continued reading where I left off several weeks ago. Fascinating stuff! In fact, it serves as an excellent follow-up to my last post.

This particular chapter outlined the development of the brain–specifically, how the different lobes of the brain connect with one another (turns out, it’s from back to front) and how undeveloped parts of the brain create “issues” for teenagers. Fortunately, the author does not focus strictly on the science of the brain, but also provides several real applications of this science that may help us to understand our teenagers better. Two of the author’s points particularly caught my attention.

  1. After sharing a story about a tragic accident involving an intoxicated teenager who had drowned, the author suggests that parents shouldn’t ignore these circumstances or write them off as unusual cases. Rather, parents “have to be proactive. You have to stuff their minds with real stories, real consequences, … over dinner, after soccer practice, before music lessons, and, yes, even when they complain they’ve heard it all before. You have to remind them: These things can happen anytime, and there are many different situations that can get them into trouble and that can end badly” (p. 39). This advice doesn’t just apply to drinking and swimming, but also includes the dangers of recreational drug use, vaping (yeah, yeah–I can feel the teenagers rolling their eyes at that one, but I assure you, there are some serious dangers), texting while driving, etc…
  2. After putting teenagers behind the wheel and then confronting them with a variety of distractions (sounds like a fun research project), we discover that “Multitasking is not only a myth but a dangerous one, especially when it comes to the teenage brain. … researchers have shown that the ability to successfully switch attention among multiple tasks is still developing through the teenage years” (p. 42). And the myth that this generation of teenagers is better at multitasking (because of the constant stream of stimuli that they have supposedly “learned” to live with) has been debunked by the University of Missouri. In fact, you don’t have to have the tv on, while you are listening to music, texting a friend, and trying to memorize terms for your next test. Simply listening to music while you study (or drive) can pose a challenge to the teenage brain.

I’m not sure how to feel about all of this. Not because I’ll be spending so much time with my son these next 10 days, but because he turns 15 in about 3 weeks. And we all know what that means…

Cheers!

(And best wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!)

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Jensen, F. E., & Nutt, A. E. (2016). The teenage brain: a neuroscientists survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: London.