Here's All The Scary (Yet Awesome) Changes Happening In Teenagers' Brains

It may be the most creative time in your life, but neuroscientists worry that social media is wrecking young minds on a biological level.

To teens, adults can seem overcautious and dead inside boring. To adults, teens can seem reckless and completely psychotic emotional. But really, those differences may just come down to the wiring inside our skulls at various ages.

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Dr. Frances E. Jensen, who chairs the Department of Neurology at UPenn's medical school and formerly taught at Harvard, just released "The Teenage Brain," which collects research previously only available to scientists. We asked her, along with University of Utah psychiatry professor Dr. Melissa Lopez-Larson, about what's really going through our heads in high school.

In our younger years, we're actually smarter than adults in a lot of ways.


Jensen: “[Teens] can learn faster, harder, better, longer, stronger than the adult. [Adults wouldn’t] want to play a memory card game with a teenager. ... Plop a teenager into a Spanish language program in Mexico; in three months they're speaking fluently, adults not at all. So it's a very responsive, sponge-like brain.

“It's called ‘synaptic plasticity,’ where synapses grow and become stronger. ... Basically the childhood brain is programmed to have more chemicals available for learning -- for instance, in the first three years of life, you go from not being able to [do anything] to walking and speaking one or two languages. The teenager is coming down from that heightened learning, but it's still much better than adults'."

That's why many successful people discover and follow their passions as teenagers...

Jensen: "This is where you hone your piano skills if you're going to be a concert pianist. ... Run with it, embrace it! You have these magical strengths you'll never have again.

"Teens’ brains are capable of rewiring themselves somewhat and enhancing areas of weakness... This is a time when they find their skill-set -- it's a wonderful time in life. They should be proud to be teenagers, and also know within them is an organ that is a treasure they need to cultivate.”

...but it's also why so many addicts start their habits at that age.


Jensen: “[Addiction] is a form of learning. ... It turns out to be the exact same synaptic pattern as you use to memorize facts, but in a different area of the brain -- the reward zones. That's why teenagers get addicted harder than adults with the same exposure. For example, people who start smoking as teens have a devil of a time quitting, as opposed to [someone who starts as] an adult. It's been shown in animal models; it is hardwired.”

Lopez-Larson: "For the most part, adult brains are kind of set -- and yes, you can do damage to them -- but the impact of highly addictive substances is probably more damaging in adolescence. ... You may be changing the wiring of the brain, so that it never gets to a normal place."

Jensen: “You may think your IQ is set. Well, guess what? In your teen years, one-third [of people] stay the same, one-third go down, and one-third go up. You can go up! We don't know why that happens, but we do know if you're smoking pot daily, your IQ drops. ... Binge-drinking can cause more brain damage [for you] than it would for your alcoholic uncle."

The next time your parents complain that you DGAF about the future or risking your life, explain that it's not your fault -- it's just science!


Lopez-Larson: "Adolescents are more likely to put themselves in dangerous situations. ... Their internal drives are more likely to say, 'I want this [now],' and they are more likely to act impulsively. These reward-based brain structures really light up.

"Youths are much more likely to pursue short- versus long-term rewards. For example, we might say to an adolescent, 'We'll give you $5 now or $100 in a year.' A lot of teenagers will take the $5 now... The opposite is true of most older adults -- there have been several actual studies looking at this phenomenon."

Jensen: “The insurance companies have known this for years. There are far more [automobile] accidents before the age of 18, before 21. They’re crossing [red] lights, they’re not stopping at stop signs, pushing ahead, competing in a highway situation with another car. … There are [neurological] developmental aspects to that."

Same story if your parents call you "self-centered." Of course you are, because your brain is still figuring itself out.


Lopez-Larson: "When you're an adolescent, it's all about you... Adolescents tend to be very self-centered and focused on themselves. This is very normal from a developmental standpoint, and helps them develop a sense of self and who they are.

"As you get older, you [are better able to] put yourself in other people's situations and see yourself in their shoes. ... It's developmentally part of the frontal lobe and frontal cortex, areas in your network that are associated with self and who you are. If you're hyper-focused on yourself ... there's definitely a biological component to all of that."

Actually the brain is the last part of your body to develop...

Jensen: “A baby kidney is kind of like a small adult kidney, but ... the adolescent brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it; it's actually got a different structure and chemistry. All this research tells us that the adolescent brain is a different environment.”

Lopez-Larson: "The limbic system is a group of primitive brain structures responsible for some of our basic emotions and drives: Hunger, sexual desires, etc. ... In puberty, there's a dramatic change in sex hormones -- such as testosterone and estrogen -- which affect the limbic system, leading to over-activation of these regions. It becomes really strong."

...and it's missing a few parts quintessential for chilling out.



Lopez-Larson: "The problem is that [teenagers'] frontal lobe, the executive or 'thinking' part of the brain -- which regulates this limbic structure, keeps calming it down -- hasn't developed as fast as the limbic structures, which leads to increased or overactive emotions, urges or drives."

Jensen: “The frontal lobes perceive future events. You're gradually acquiring more [wiring] from the back to the front of the brain. Your frontal lobes are coming increasingly online, increasing connectivity. You're able to use [them] for judgment to an increasing degree over time."

This process keeps on going after you're a teen, which is why we also tend to be wild as twentysomethings.


Jensen: “[The brain] doesn’t reach full maturity until your late 20s or even your 30s. It grows hugely -- it’s like a different species. ... Nothing magical happens when you turn 20; you're just a few minutes older than when you were 19."

And yeah, guys, you’re (probably) way more immature than girls are...

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Jensen: “Males are approximately two years behind females in this process during the teen years. A 16-year-old guy is not the same as a 16-year-old girl. A girl tends to be more organized and less impulsive or erratic than a boy.”

Lopez-Larson: "Studies suggest there are parts of the brain where females develop faster, and some where males [do]. People often think girls are more mature because they don't do some of the sillier 'guy stuff' that guys do -- like go cow-tipping or race cars or drink beer bongs or do whatever -- but girls act out and show immaturity in other, more covert ways, like in relationships. They're more catty and get involved in a lot of drama or 'girl politics' that boys don't engage in."

Jensen: “[Creating drama] is just novelty seeking. ... It's the brain trying to customize itself for the environment. ... The problem is the environment’s more dangerous right now from a psychological standpoint.”

Social media anxiety is freaking out teenagers in unprecedented ways -- and cyberbullying can have deep neurological effects.


Lopez-Larson: "Adolescents really have it rough these days. ... We all had bullies when we were young, but the scale of the bullying now can be global and difficult to escape from, and the mistakes you make as an adolescent may follow you forever.

"The emotional stress placed on kids these days is very likely impacting their mental health. Stress releases high levels of cortisol and other hormones, which directly impact brain regions making you more susceptible to depression and anxiety."

Jensen: "[Teens'] synapses are so responsive to the environment, adapting to it and morphing much more than [adults’]. It’s a time when you're building your circuits, and stress changes chemistry, if it's superimposed in a time of development.

"Everyone's ... exposing themselves to online stress, and psychiatric disease is blooming, blossoming. Mental illness comes on during later teen years and early adulthood. Worse yet, at that age you've got peers who are the least empathetic, the worst group capable of being empathetic, making harsh comments, unable to connect the dots, and really it's a very sad thing."

But this generation also understands online identity in ways no previous one can.


Jensen: “The kids are developing mental concepts of the internet -- and how virtual and actual reality connect -- in ways I am tone-deaf for. Like how it’s said that [native Alaskans] had dozens of words for different shades of white, and they'd hone their eyesight; a slight gray white would mean the ice will crack. [Modern teens] have a very different idea of the construct of this whole world.”

Lopez-Larson: "I know people who only have online friends. They can fake and play around with their identities, and say practically anything online without any consequences. [The danger is] they don't necessarily develop a true sense of self and they may not learn important social skills that are necessary when you work and interact with people in real life. I think that's going to be a major problem in years to come."

Natural teenage impulsiveness isn't the best mix with online permanence.


Jensen: "What would’ve [previously] been a schoolyard prank that would only affect five people now goes viral to the world. ... Society has almost made it untenable to be a teenager; they're going to be impulsive, but now these little stupid things you do [might] cause you to commit suicide or be expelled ... or affect whether you can get jobs, because employers will look at your archived Facebook.

"We have to reinterpret age-appropriate risk-taking. They’re not ready for primetime yet, but the world is putting them on the stage. ... We do teenagers a disservice in society by expecting them to make decisions as [if they’re] adults when [their brains are] not hooked up fully yet."

What's really going to help teenagers is knowing more about themselves -- and learning to ignore the negative stimuli as much as possible.


Jensen: “We need to give [teens] as much information about their developmental state as they deserve. Why don't they know about their vulnerabilities and their strengths? Why don't we do more education around this? Why isn't it more of a mainstream discussion?

“We need to teach teenagers to ... handle stress, how to identify when they are stressed. ... They will be able to say, ‘I shouldn't be looking at these stressful websites. I know now they're causing me anxiety. That's why I'm not sleeping.’ Help them connect the dots!

"I don’t think we, as the adults who are paving the way for them, are doing a good job. Schools aren't doing it. ... We need to look to the [older] millennials to help with this; these are their younger brothers and sisters. It’s your generation that has to help sort through this.”

Things may seem super dramatic now, but don't worry, you'll be old and super boring soon enough!


Lopez-Larson: "Adolescence is hell any way you look at it, but once [teenagers'] hormones are in check and they figure out who they are as a person, life starts to get a lot better... They're much more in tune with who they are, learn more about what they want out of life, become much more independent and start pursuing longer-term, stable relationships."

Jensen: “That's the lack of your frontal lobe: 'I’m immortal, go away.’ ... That’s the executive function not there yet. Over time we know you get humbled by life and realize, ‘Oh no, it happened to me.’”