Hans Hermann: Welcome to Critical Window, a podcast from the Alliance for Excellent Education that explores the rapid changes happening in the body and the brain during adolescence and what these changes mean for educators, policymakers, and communities.
Hans Hermann: In this installment of Critical Window, we present a conversation with Professor Ronald Dahl, MD. Dr. Dahl is a pediatrician and developmental scientist. He is committed to interdisciplinary team research with the long-term goal of improving the lives of children and adolescents. His research covers topics such as basic studies of neurobiological and psychological development. It also includes clinical studies in pediatrics and child psychiatry. Dr. Dahl’s research considers the social, family, and cultural contexts that shape neuro-behavioral development. While conducting this impressive body of research, Dr. Dahl serves as a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley. In addition, he is the director of the Institute of Human Development and director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent, both also at UC Berkeley.
A few months ago, we sat down with Dr. Dahl to discuss his research on the topic of adolescent neurodevelopment and what the current research might mean for schools, teaching, and learning. Our interest in adolescent brain development is driven by our focus on closing long-standing achievement gaps for traditionally underserved high school students.
Hans Hermann: Dr. Dahl, thanks very much for being with us today and for your work in the field of adolescent brain research. I’ll start off by asking if you can share with our viewers information about your latest research and what it tells us about adolescents and their neurodevelopment.
Ronald Dahl: Thank you. A key part of what we are understanding about adolescence is that it’s a perfect storm of interacting levels of change. That is, it’s not simply changes in brain development.
It’s a time of rapid physical growth. The second fastest growth of the lifespan. Only infants grow more quickly. It’s a time that there’s activation of new drives and motivations. It’s a time that there are sex-specific changes in faces and voices and body characteristics. It’s the face that kids are seeing when the mirror’s changing as they go through puberty. The faces of their friends are changing.
It’s a time when they have changes in sleep and their _____ regulation, metabolic changes and a wide array of cognitive and emotional changes. And most importantly profound changes in social motivation, social context and social roles. The reason I’m emphasizing these issues of dynamic changes across levels is that each level we look at, whether it’s the deep biology and molecular changes, behavioral changes, the neurodevelopmental changes that I’m gonna talk about a lot, changes in peers, family, school, culture, technology and media, that those changes are inherently causing changes at other levels.
As the brain changes, the interest in peers and in the selection of peers is influenced by those brain changes as individuals interact with different peers than the media and technology they use changes. But then the experiences of technology and media are then changing the brain. If I put double arrows across every level you wouldn’t be able to read the words.
But if we don’t understand these interactions then we can’t understand the spirals. And then of course another important to mention that often doesn’t get discussed about puberty and adolescence, and I love this quote, is figuring out to relate to the world and yourself as a suddenly and mystifyingly sexual being. And these dynamics that stir up and churn strong emotions and strong feelings and these interactions are important to understand because they set the stage for these spirals.
As things start to go badly they unravel and affect other levels of the systems. Now we have focused in the traditional research in this area on what I call the dark side of this, that these rapid interactions, these multiple levels of bidirectional interactions that are actively sculpting these developing neural systems create vulnerabilities.
Because these interactions are happening quickly and interacting across these levels, this sets the stage for what a lot of people stereotype adolescence as this time of vulnerability and problems. And it’s what I would call the dark side of this spiral. And it’s clearly true. It’s part of what we call the health paradox of adolescence.
And it’s a paradox because on one hand adolescence is the healthiest period of the lifespan. Almost everything you can measure, if you go from elementary school across adolescence into early adult gets better. Strength, speed, reaction time, reasoning abilities, cognitive skills, immune function, resistance to cold, heat, hunger, dehydration and most types of injuries.
And yet overall death and disability rates jump 200 to 300 percent between elementary school and early adulthood. And of course these aren’t mysterious medical illnesses. These are problems with the control of behavior and emotion. It’s increasing rates of accident, suicide, homicide, depression, alcohol and substance use, violence, reckless behaviors, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, health problems related to risky behaviors broadly, worsening obesity.
And in addition to the measurable levels of death and disability this is a time when patterns of behavior are instantiated that have long-term consequences across the lifespan. The most striking example is smoking. If you look at people who are gonna develop emphysema and heart disease and lung cancer in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, almost every one of them will have begun smoking at adolescence between ages 10 to 20.
So if we’re gonna focus on the trajectory to these health problems we need to understand that adolescence is the key inflection point for many, many, many outcomes. But what is equally important and less understood because it’s been more difficult to study, for everything we’ve said about these dynamic interactions across systems that create negative spirals creates opportunities for positive spirals.
This is a time of rapid changes that create opportunities for learning, for exploration, for acquiring skills, habits, for shaping intrinsic motivations, heartfelt goals and passions. These are unique opportunities for social, emotional and motivational learning that shape deep feelings that are having enduring effects, as well as habits and patterns of behavior.
We need to understand that the opportunity to scaffold and support and nudge positive developmental spirals is equally important and equally impactful and from an educational perspective, perhaps the most important challenge in using the science.
The first place I want to start with this work, particularly the work over the past several years not only in my lab in our center but in a number of labs around the world is to push back against what I think is a non-helpful myth that adolescence behaved the way they do and that these negative vulnerabilities emerge because their brains aren’t working well, that they’re broken, that they’re missing part of their prefrontal cortex.
These metaphors don’t fit the science and they don’t serve understanding adolescence. Adolescence prefrontal cortex work very well when they’re motivated to do something, when they’re engaged, when they have passions. They can recruit their prefrontal cortex quite well.
Adolescent brains are very well adapted to the tasks and challenges of adolescence. They direct their attention and salience and what they will react to to their social world, to learn about the complex social world and their place in it as an individual. They are tuned to that and reacting to that in ways that can override their cognitive abilities. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with their brains.
They’re doing what the adolescent brain should do. They’re focusing and prioritizing learning about their complex social world. And if you want a simple example about adolescent brains, let me pose this question. If there was a new technology that emerged or an ability to do something as tedious as text messaging and you wanted to compare who was gonna master this more quickly, an adolescent brain or an adult brain, I can tell you where most of you would place our bets.
If it’s a way to increase your social world adolescence will master the learning very rapidly. If they’re being told that they need to learn something because it’s gonna help them sometime in the future then their brains may not look like they work very well. But it’s not because something’s wrong with their brain. And I think this is an important point to highlight that these shifts in priorities for attention and learning as we’ll talk about later, we shouldn’t think about as an adequacy or somehow we should wait until their brains are more mature.
This is a key time for positive learning and that these patterns of experience are really calibrating the social and emotional valuing systems in the brain that generate feelings about what matters and what doesn’t matter. These heartfelt goals and priorities are being shaped by these experiences in ways that can have positive impact.
We’re doing a disservice to the brain if we think that it’s all about rational thought. Feelings can be smart, wise feelings. We can have passions for good causes and purposes that guide our value systems and shaping these systems are as important as shaping the ability for the thinking brain to suppress emotions. That’s a far too simplistic understanding of what it means to become mature or wise.
Now a colleague and I did a meta-analysis back in 2011 and we published in 2012 of all the functional brain imaging studies at that time in adolescence. And we showed evidence that a simple model of an immature prefrontal cortex did not fit the data very well at all. As a part of that paper that we published we highlighted that there was really strong evidence for changes in the emotional and social processing systems in the brain when puberty began that created increased sensitivity of certain kinds of rewards and strong feelings and self-conscious emotions.
And those systems interact with the thinking-planning brain in ways that can derail them. I’m sorry, and this is important to understand, I don’t have to go over all the details of the model, but when puberty begins it affects subsets of systems and circuits in the brain that are involved in processing social and emotional input and sensitizes that. That recruits parts of the thinking-planning brain in flexible ways.
That can lead the way to negative spirals across the mid to late adolescence if those priorities begin to be aimed at risky behaviors and dangerous behaviors and drugs and alcohol. But in the same way if those priorities become aimed at positive passions for long-term goals, for adapting and mastering challenges and feeling admired for those very positive things in one’s life, those spirals can become very positive and for most adolescents they are.
Most adolescents get through this period quite well, getting along with their teachers and their parents and have good friends and do wonderful thing and are idealistic and can contribute to the world. We need to understand that these positive spirals are at least as important if not more important than the negative spirals.
Hans Hermann: I’m hearing that your research shows that adolescence is far more complex than had been previously thought. Given, as you say, that adolescence is not a period of impaired functioning, but rather a normal developmental stage for teenagers, what age do you define as its beginning and at what age does it end?
Ronald Dahl: First of all, adolescence is not being a teenager. It actually starts before being 13 or 14 because puberty happens early and has been happening earlier. So it’s from the beginning of this rapid physical changes of puberty. And when does adolescence end? Well, that’s a difficult thing to define biologically.
It is when you take on adult roles and responsibilities. That’s a long period of time that is often from ages 9, 10 or 11 when puberty is starting, and in the mid-20’s lots of people are still living with their parents and having a hard time feeling like they’re adults. So it’s helpful to consider three general windows. I’m gonna talk a lot about the transition into adolescence, the onset of puberty as the most dynamic period that creates probably new plasticity and specialized learning in the brain.
That early inflection point is often ignored because we think of adolescence as teenagers that are 15 to 19 with problems. But if we want to do positive scaffolding of the most important inflection point, we may want to focus earlier in this 10 to 14 period as they’re just ramping into puberty. Now that’s not to diminish the importance of mid to late adolescence. This period from 15 to 19 is when the spiraling is gonna continue. If you’re on a negative trajectory it can really plummet into even worse patterns and positive trajectories can really build. So we want to think about the 15 to 19-year-olds as an important window of development as well.
And then finally, there’s increasing evidence that this transition into adulthood is one of the most vulnerable times. Finding that first job, the key relationships, the patterns of stable life feeling like there are economic opportunities to succeed as an adult. So that’s an important transition as well.
But the science is different in terms of what hints we get about opportunities and vulnerabilities in these windows. So it’s good to think not just of adolescence as everyone from 8 to 28, but rather windows of development and the developmental processes biologically and developmental processes socially that create these opportunities and these challenges.
Hans Hermann: So, adolescence starts earlier than we think and it isn’t a negative or broken aspect of social and brain development. Instead, it’s a normal period where the brain is developing and individuals are, through these spirals you talk about, developing the skills, cognitive abilities, and experiences that will take them into eventual adulthood. What activities, then, does the onset of puberty guide young people towards?
Ronald Dahl: Puberty causes an increase in the attraction of novelty, exploration and trying to figure out about the world and who you are in the world. That’s true across a lot of species. If animals didn’t have this tendency to explore, why would they leave their safe burrows and nests and go out into the world as an individual? This has been studied across a lot of species, this tendency that puberty and sexual maturation to have a tendency to explore and seek autonomy.
There’s also an increase in sensation-seeking. Sensation-seeking isn’t just being impulsive. Sensation-seeking is having an appetite for, an inclination for excitement, arousal, novelty, bursts of unusual experiences and feelings. Now that’s not true for every child and there are plenty of kids who are sensation-seeking when they’re three and four and five and as adults.
But the tendency to become more sensation-seeking goes up at puberty. Even anxious, shy kids tend to get a bit bolder. And kids that are already pretty bold tend to get a lot bolder. And if you look at the data about boredom in school, it maps on really well. David Yeager had a wonderful analysis of a big population data on boredom in school and in seventh and eighth grade is when boredom in school peaks.
A huge number of kids are bored more than 50 percent of the time when they’re peeking in their sensation-seeking. They want to learn and explore. Sitting in a desk being told what is important often doesn’t tap into these biological shifts. The second thing that we know deeply is that as these pubertal hormones go up the motivational salience of being admired and respected increases.
Of course kids like to be admired. Of course adults like to be admired. Status-seeking is a human characteristic. And as kids go through puberty, boys and girls, as these hormones go up the relative importance of being admired and respected and figuring out how to get more social status is intensified and we have to understand this as a spurt in the system that creates vulnerabilities and opportunities.
The science is fascinating. We’re really trying to take apart the complexity and understand some of the components of the hormones and the brain systems, but the principles about education and learning I think are beginning to be clear even with lack of details and some of the mechanisms. And that is this is a period of plasticity from learning. The brain is trying to promote certain kinds of social learning that have been quite adaptive for most of human history.
This isn’t a bad period. This is a good period that with positive learning can have a very, very positive impact.
Hans Hermann: This speaks to many new developments in education. In many instances we are seeing a proliferation of maker spaces and non-traditional class set ups where children can be self-directed and get deeply into collaboration and problem solving. I think this addresses the boredom issue you just raised, but can you also talk about physical development and what we know about an adolescent’s drive for admiration or approval?
Ronald Dahl: What you see, starting at about 11 in the girls and starting about 12 in the boys is a big spurt in height.
Now this isn’t being a certain age. It’s not some mystery of what’s happening that suddenly growth accelerates. We know exactly what happens. This is puberty. And if you go through puberty at 11 versus 13 the growth spurt’s gonna happen at a different time. This is not a subtle change. If you’re in the house of an individual going through this you suddenly find you can’t keep them in shoes, clothes or food in the refrigerator.
This is a profound change in a very simple physical process. The point here is that of course something like malnutrition or a disease could affect growth at any point across this entire interval. But think about if that happened in the first year of life or if it happened just as you’re starting puberty. Its total impact is gonna be much larger.
This is an analogy for other processes that are harder to measure. When we say kids always are harder to measure. When we say kids always are sensitive to admiration, they’re always sensitive to whether they’re feeling respected and admired, that could be true, or that kids seek status or they have sensation-seeking.
But in the same way that height increases we think there’s certain kinds of feelings, tendencies and learning that also accelerate in an analogous way. We also know that the hormones that cause this growth spurt happen at puberty. It’s testosterone and growth hormone and other hormones suddenly surge. That’s what makes the body go up.
Those same hormones affect the brain. They affect dopamine systems in the brain that are involved in reward processing and learning. They affect social and affective sensitivities to being respected and admired and they incline motivation to pay more attention to peers and other admired adults that they have a natural inclination to pay attention to and learn about.
This shift, it’s called this reorientation of social and emotional information processing streams. It shifts attention and motivation more naturally to pay attention to social roles, peers, potential romantic partners, social hierarchies, certainly interest in sexual and romantic behavior and this intense focus on one’s self. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Where do I not fit in?
These tendencies are very healthy processes and they create opportunities and vulnerabilities. One of the drivers – this isn’t the most important part of the story, but it is a very important part, is for example the hormone testosterone in both boys and in girls. These levels of hormones are high in the first year of life. They go down to very low levels and at the beginning of puberty they go up.
And as they go up they, and they go up earlier in girls even though they don’t go up as high in girls, and they affect the same neural systems – most of the same neural systems that they do in boys. And they sensitize individuals to what kinds of behaviors are being admired. And they’re gonna do more of those behaviors. This is important to understand not because the biology’s driving the behavior, because the biology sensitizes learning about social context.
Hans Hermann: That’s really interesting. It’s not just about admiration or respect socially. There’s a neurological and hormonal component that is driving the behavior. Is this interaction well understood? What are its effects on adolescent behavior?
Ronald Dahl: But if you look at the circuits that are involved in emotion and motivation and a feeling base of motivation, what you feel motivated to do, those systems involve another part of the striatum and those seem to have a more quadratic shift with age.
That is as puberty kicks in they shoot up and then come back down. And the interactions between these circuits, how our feelings interact with our cognition and our behavior is being shaped by one system being shifted at puberty. What does that mean? I think what it means is that as puberty kicks in it creates what I’ve often referred to as igniting passions in the developing brain.
It creates profound changes and romantic interests and motivation and the intensity of emotion. It increases sensation-seeking and it sensitizes the brain to pay attention to goal-directed behaviors related to status. And it’s also an opportunity to shape motivational learning. And when I say motivational learning here it’s not about making yourself do something because the goal comes later.
It’s not about reading literature because you want to get an A in your AP English class and get into a good college. It’s about falling in love with literature so that you hide under the covers and read all night. It’s about these feeling-based aspects of wanting, liking and desiring particular kinds of goals. It’s about heart-felt goals, values and priorities.
It’s like when kids fall in love with a sport and you’d have to keep them from practicing, shooting the basketball or kicking the soccer ball. It’s about falling in love with poetry that kids will spend all of the time available writing and reading poetry or playing a particular instrument or being engaged in making the world a better place or falling in love with a particular religion. This capacity for intense motivational alignment with certain kinds of activities is shaped strongly by this period of time.
To summarize the practical aspects of this work, I think we’re increasingly understanding that early adolescence, this period of 10 to 14, the onset of puberty is a period for adjusting motivations and early identity. Adjusting motivations can also be disengagement. Depression rates increase at the same time kids have these igniting passions.
But it’s a time also to adjust motivations to a particular kinds of goals and activities. This is a time of intense romantic and sexual feelings and confusion for a lot of young people. Finding a path to acceptance, belonging, respect and autonomy is naturally facilitated by these changes. Kids’ sensitivity to what do I do to feel admired and valued, how do I contribute in ways that makes me feel valued, expanded, enlarged in some way that’s not just about myself. It’s about being part of and connected to something larger than myself.
Kids are seeking meaning and purpose. They’re seeking ways to feel enlarged that can be very healthy and yet this urgency to get these hard feelings is also a risky time to get these feelings in cheap ways that can give you short-term versions of these feelings and that’s part of the risk for the negative spirals.
These changes are also interacting with other adolescent domains – the risk-taking, the novelty-seeking and increased fear and emotional reactivity. But together they’re shaping high intensity motivational learning. I’m gonna finish by giving one of my favorite examples that I think really captures key elements of this and that is that adolescence, particularly after the onset of puberty, is a time that the brain is capable of transformational changes in motivation. And the most striking example of that is literally falling in love.
Pre-pubertal kids develop crushes but they don’t exchange a hundred words and two kisses and be willing to die for each other and destroy their families and feel like the Universe had always intended for them to be together. Now that’s not an absurd comedy of Shakespeare. It’s the most successful tragedy in Western Literature.
And there’s a reason Shakespeare made Juliet 13. There’s this understanding across cultures that this capacity to hijack every motivation with just a few intense experiences is facilitated in this window of time. But this capacity for sudden transformational changes and motivation is not simply literally falling in love. This is also a metaphor. It’s a time kids can fall in love with literature, dance, music, a particular religion or philosophy, the idealistic ambition to make the world a better place with math, science, social justice.
It is a vulnerable time when these motives can be hijacked for negative things and it’s also a vulnerable time for withdrawal and disconnection from any passion. It’s a time when kids become more apathetic, bored and depressed. But that doesn’t mean the model’s wrong. It is quite consistent with this idea of rapid adjustments that can spiral down as well as spiral up. And the developmental science motivation is at a really early stage.
Hans Hermann: Hmm. Is there any emerging research to help educators better address these turbulent opportunities in the lives of their adolescent students? Even though it’s at an early stage we want to help practitioners point their students towards positive spirals and good engagement while avoiding depression and apathy. Our research indicates that the more positively involved and engaged a student is, the more likely she or he will be to graduate high school and go on to be college and career ready.
Ronald Dahl: So one of the things we’re trying to emphasize is adding a bit more precision into the understanding developmental processes. But it’s not just being an age or a grade level that – and to emphasize the positive aspects of the science rather than the negative.
It’s interesting if you look at parents and other adults’ response to infants and toddlers, infants and toddlers are a huge amount of work and stressful, but there’s this sense of wonder and joy of watching infants and toddlers explore. The emotion when you’re dealing with kids going into adolescence tends to be different. Why? Why isn’t it as wonderful to watch the awkward exploration and emotional raw struggles?
This tendency to problematize youth because they become more threatening. Because their power looks more threatening to us than toddlers. And I think that if we can help to refocus, this is a window of opportunity as a time of learning and that a lot of these struggles to push against adult efforts to control and steer what they’re doing is a healthy part of what they’re doing.
And I think the second part of that is that the more precisely we can understand particularly important early windows – when I was initially doing a lot of this work and we would talk about trying to understand the deeper science relevant to things like depression or substance use and we would talk about 10 to 14, they’d say wait a minute. Why do you want to study them? These are problems that occur in 15 to 19-year-olds.
And I would as a developmentalist say yes. What didn’t I make clear in our model? Yes, we need to treat people with lung cancer in their 60’s and 70’s. But ultimately we need to stop them from smoking. But I think in similar ways the early roots of these patterns of behavior are gonna be more modifiable, especially at the population level and at the education level.
Of course kids are gonna get into severe problems and need different kinds of interventions later in adolescence. But I think focusing on investing. It’s just like we’ve globally invested in infants and young children around the world and had a huge impact in really inspiring ways.
I think there’s opportunities to invest in that early adolescent period to help especially kids that are struggling and disadvantaged and don’t have a lot of ways to feel admired, have ways to feel respected and their autonomy can feel more threatening to people. Creating ways for them to explore and find their own path to be admired and supporting those in really valuable ways early I think is a part of this.
Hans Hermann: You’re talking about the importance of engagement: of making students part of their learning process, of giving them agency so that they can have chances both to get this feeling of respect and accomplishment, and also to be engaged in their interests. We at All4Ed ascribe to deeper learning outcomes. We want every child to finish high school with core content knowledge, with the ability to think critically, with the ability to solve problems, and with the ability to be agents of their own learning going forward.
That only occurs through a different pedagogy than has traditionally been implemented. Could you talk a little bit about the joining of physical development to neural development, as it pertains to student engagement?
Ronald Dahl: That’s a great, totally on-point question. I think that’s exactly the area that I see as the greatest potential in the following ways. At some level discovery learning and personalized learning is going to enhance learning at any point in lifespan. But the principles you just talked about, engaging young people in ways that make them feel like they have control and autonomy, and it resonates with what feels important and salient to them is intensified at this period of puberty.
Those principles, which may be true in general, become ever more important. And so highlighting and prioritizing those issues to an even greater extent – we’ve learned this in a number of areas of even public health or behavior change with kids. Giving them good information about healthy eating or exercise or anti-bullying, if those messages at the process of giving that message somehow makes them feel diminished, makes them feel like they’re being talked down to, or that adults are trying to tell them they don’t know what’s best for themselves, they need to listen to adult advice, that feeling of being diminished or disrespected will completely offset good information from well-meaning people.
It resonates with what you’re talking about in terms of pedagogy and learning. Helping kids discover what’s true for themselves and scaffolding that for good reasons, but giving them more autonomy, their natural attraction to want to be interested in each other and social relationships. Working in groups. Creative approaches to having social interaction and the energizing of social interactions, working together in teams on projects.
Again, lots of people have been talking about this long before we knew the neuroscience. But the degree to which that becomes even more important right in this window of time. Rather than going against the grain and making kids sit at their desk, and whether it’s with technology or a book and solve problems, that helps one set of skills. But if it’s going against the grain of their natural motivations, they’re incredibly bored and feel like I don’t belong here. This doesn’t feel salient in my life.
The degree to which we go against the grain of those natural motivations versus aren’t there ways to master the same cognitive skills and ways that are going with the grain of having kids work in groups. Having them do some mixture of competition and cooperation, of teams of peoples trying to solve problems.
And relating the problems increasingly to things that feel salient, what really matters in their lives and helping them feel connected in their own identities to those issues that they care about. So again, these principles resonate with what teachers have known, and yet this added emphasis that right in that window, and I think there are some really nice studies that show that even light touch interventions, that seventh grade period when so many kids are falling off the trajectory, that make them feel valued and challenged in positive ways can totally change their trajectory.
So I think the principles that you’re emphasizing broadly are strongly resonant with the science and the science would suggest that the importance is even greater in that window
Hans Hermann: That’s good to know. Now, of course, biology doesn’t know that technology is also affecting adolescent development. Today’s students are so plugged in. They use their devices for everything. Most schools now allow devices in class because they see that the benefits of access to information far outweigh the detriments brought on by technology. Yet the danger is there. Social media can be a great source of interaction for adolescents but there can be very negative ramifications. Firstly, adolescent students simply spend too much time on their phones and tablets. But they also can engage in very dangerous behaviors on line. What does your research have to say about this?
Ronald Dahl: If kids have one set of experiences in school and their sense of self or agency or feeling admired outside of school, and their experiences through technology are very, very powerful and different, the rapid intense changes in how children and adolescents interact with the world through technology.
We all know it, we all see it in our daily lives, and yet it’s happening so fast that it’s almost blurring I think our perspective. We were talking about tablets have only existed since 2010. They’re so part of our life – the smartphones. We so quickly just think of these things as normal. And the virtual reality, the augmented reality, the capacity for compelling experiences.
And then of course, as many people have pointed out, how many of the kids who have trouble having the self-discipline to do even an hour of homework a week will spend 40 hours a week earning status in their video games. These dimensions of learning and social experience and how rapidly they’re changing and how savvy some of these approaches are at capturing motivation for kids are really, really important things to be considered in relation to this.
Because I think rather than – there’s a tendency to either be dystopian or utopian. There are people that think that this technology revolution is going to save the world and do unbelievable things for education in kids, and there are people who think it’s gonna ruin the world and ruin kids’ experiences.
And of course there’s a lot of reasons to believe it’s somewhere in the middle that there are going to be good and bad ways technology can impact human lives and how do we engage these changes as policy-makers caring about kids’ education and experience? And how do we promote versions of technology? We’re not gonna stop it.
I think it’s become clear, not just to the U.S. but around the world, the rate of change of technologies is happening and the kids are the early adopters. And they are two or three steps ahead of their parents in most of the areas of new technology really fast. And so it’s happening. And finding positive ways to incorporate the technology revolution I think is a huge component of this.
Hans Hermann: So I want to continue to pursue this technology question before we wrap up. We didn’t really talk about the social media component of technology. Kids are always online in their social network of choice. How can we think about adolescent use of technology in socially positive ways?
Ronald Dahl: When the use of technology enhances social interaction when it’s the basis for parents and children interacting with each other or children interacting with each other in ways that are scaffolded and promote other kinds of learning, technology can be a very positive. And when technology is a distraction from the social world and way to isolate, and mainly be entertained in easy entertainment ways, which is a lot of educational apps are much more in that category, I think that principle emerges over and over again.
And so whether you’re talking about virtual reality, there are versions of virtual reality or augmented reality that can bring people together. I mean I don’t want to say anything good or bad about Pokémon Go, but I know people who met their neighbors for the first time because they were out capturing – I mean I think the capacity. Not that that’s the answer, but I think there is a capacity for these technologies to promote social interactions and to have parents in the same way that a parent reading a book or watching a TV show with their child, talking about the issues that come up, is very different than kids doing those things alone.
I think this is even more amplified with technology. And so I think that the evidence that this creates opportunities for kids working together with the technology on a project and do some augmented reality version where they have real objects and the technology, so that it’s not about immersing in the technology that isolates you from other people but rather it’s a tool that promotes social interaction that helps you learn.
Hans Hermann: So it really is about engagement.
Ronald Dahl: Let me give you one example where in terms of the adolescents I think the data – most of the data that people is worried it’s destroying kids’ abilities to interact have not been supported or there’s not a lot of concern. But there is one place where there’s already enough data that we can flag as a concern and that is sleep deprivation and light schedules.
The data, the meta-analysis was recently done and putting together data from a few different sources, it’s not simply that the technology’s keeping them up. It’s one of those spirals. It’s at the time the brain expects it to be dark, you’ve got light getting into the brain telling it that it’s light.
You’ve got all this emotional arousal, you’ve got excitement, you’ve got mastery challenges, you’ve got kids sleeping with their phone to get the text message about the important social information in the middle of the night. But then the later and later schedule, the catch-up sleep on the wrong phase of the cycle, sleeping in really late on the weekends, this becomes a spiral.
And then the kids are irritable and sleep deprived and they use more stimulus. It’s a set of spirals and technology has amplified that spiral. And having kids use technology at night is clearly a concern. It doesn’t mean technology’s bad, but it may mean that having an electronic curfew or having a period of time that technology is turned off could be a very, very important part of the puzzle.
Hans Hermann: Wow. So, it’s about adult engagement and getting adolescents to adopt good habits as well. There really is a lot to unpack here. This conversation has been fascinating, and I want to thank Dr. Ron Dahl for joining us. Dr. Dahl is a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, the Director of the Institute of Human Development, and the Director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent, also at UC Berkeley. He is a well-renowned developmental scientist committed to interdisciplinary team research with a long-term goal of improving the lives of children and adolescence. Dr. Dahl, thank you so much.
Robyn Harper: Thank you for listening to Critical Window, the Alliance for Excellent Education’s podcast on how the research from the science of adolescent learning can inform middle and high school design and the work of school leaders. Tell your colleagues, friends and families about Critical Window and please subscribe on iTunes to Stitcher to make sure you catch future episodes. This podcast was produced by Aharone Charnoff, Hans Hermann, and Robin Harper. To learn more about the science of adolescent learning visit all4ed.org/SAL.