Video: Are teen brains better for multi-tasking?

  1. Closed captioning of: Are teen brains better for multi-tasking?

    >>> a new study out tonight which, as they often do, tells a lot of folks what we already know. this one says when you get older multitasking gets tougher. the younger you are, and it's called life in 2011 , and now there's a new major study looking at how all of that, all of the electronics affects the brain of the average teenager. nbc news chief medical editor dr. nancy snyderman has the first of two reports on the teen brain, a work in progress .

    >> reporter: it's after school at the cohen house . a sea of computers, cell phones , and notebooks. it's how homework is done these days, with constant text messages.

    >> you don't know if it's work, if it's play, if it's homework or if it's chatting.

    >> reporter: a generation that has never known a world without the internet or cell phone .

    >> sometimes i'll fall asleep with my phone with me in bed. i'll be just like holding on to it.

    >> reporter: and the headlines reflect the concern. are we raising kids who are constantly distracted by technology? the average child now spends 7 1/2 hours a day with media. but since some of that is done with multiple devices, it's actually almost 11 hours of media every day.

    >> a lot of the memory system --

    >> reporter: that's why neuroscientist jay gidde is scanning the brains of thousands of teenagers.

    >> this is an incredible gusher of information pouring into the teen brain from all these different sources.

    >> reporter: it's a critical time for the brain, becoming more specialized by getting rid of information it doesn't use. it's like pruning branches, allowing the brain to strengthen the connections it that will last until adulthood. the doctor scans the teens every two years as they grow up and tests their distractibility. the surprising news? all this multitasking might be making their minds stronger and serves as a cross-training exercise for the brain.

    >> there does seem to be a mass advertisety for the younger adolescent that allows them to get better at multitasking to a point.

    >> reporter: and dr. gieg also sees this outside his lab. he's a parent of three teens himself. but he limits how much screen time his kids get.

    >> as a parent we all want to do the best for our children. how do we parent better? how do we live better?

    >> reporter: it's that balance, he says, that will help teens learn in this everchanging world.

    >> the doctor's poor kids are under constant scrutiny.

    >> constant scrutiny.

    >> first of all, i find it believable that it's at some level probably good brain exercise. but do we know enough to do any long-term studies?

    >> that's exactly where they're going. in fact, dr. gied says right now if you look at college kids there are no alarming findings their brains are turning into mush. they seem to be handling this incoming data, and that pruning seems to be working. so for parents keep your eyes on their grades, and one thing we're really going to talk about, and that's tomorrow night, brian, is the sleep deprivation . because sleep absolutely has an effect on the brain, and that's going to be the subject of tomorrow night's segment.

    >> all right. nancy snyderman , as always, thanks. and by the way, we should point out, much more on this topic on the web. dr. nancy will host a live chat tomorrow afternoon on but she won't be performing any primary care.

updated 4/12/2011 7:12:16 PM ET 2011-04-12T23:12:16

Whether they’re texting while talking to friends or plugging in to an iPod while studying, today's teenagers seem to be constantly multitasking.

Young people are spending at least seven-and-a-half hours a day with media -- computers, cell phones, TV or music -- and by frequently multitasking that means they're packing in the equivalent of nearly 11 hours hours of content, according to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. That's an increase from nearly six-and-half hours a day, or eight-and-a-half hours of media multitasking, just six years ago.

Parents who grew up in a world without all the technological chatter often find themselves wondering whether their kids will ever learn to focus on one thing at a time. They ask: Are we raising an entire generation of children with attention deficit disorder?

The answer to that question — and many others — may come from a groundbreaking study currently underway at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since 1991, researchers there have been scanning the brains of 1,000 kids’ brains every other year with functional MRI, a machine that shows in vivid colors exactly what the brain does while it’s thinking.

The study has given researchers their first look at how normal kids’ brains develop.

As part of the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams series, "The Teen Brain: A Work in Progress," spoke with Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist in the child psychiatry branch of the NIH, about how all the digital distractions of our world are affecting young minds.

What makes teen brains tick? Join a Noon ET chat moderated by NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman

Q: As you looked at all these developing brains, was there anything that surprised you?
There were a couple of things that we didn’t see coming at all. First, was that the brain, especially the front part, doesn’t mature until age 25 or 30. We joke that the car rental companies had the best neuroscientists. They had it right — they said you had to be 25 to rent. And that’s because they had a lot of data showing that 24 year olds cost a lot more than people who are older.

Q: How are those two things connected? I mean, what do car accidents have to do with the fact that the front part of the brain is unfinished?
A: The front part of the brain ties everything together. It’s also involved in controlling impulses, judgment, wisdom, longer range planning. So this part of the brain is not totally defective, but it’s still under construction way longer than we used to think.

Q: And the other surprise?
The second big surprise was that the brain has reached 93 percent of adult size by the time we’re in the first grade.

Q: If kids’ brains aren’t getting much bigger after age 6, how is it that they seem to get so much smarter as they get older?
It’s like building a house. The frame is built early. But a lot of work goes on inside after that. In the brain, it’s the wiring. Different parts of the brain are being connected up.

Story: Docs warn about teens and 'Facebook depression'

So, it’s not the size or shape of the structures in the brain that is changing, but how the structures are connected to one another. This was a paradigm shift.

Q: With all the new technologies, from cell phones to ipods to the internet, kids’ brains are constantly being deluged with information in a way that ours never were. Will this cause their brains to wire up in ways that are different from ours?
That’s a great question — one that isn’t yet resolved. There’s definitely a generational divide. For better or for worse, kids these days have access to a world of information. To me, that’s overwhelmingly positive. Knowledge is power and these days you can look up anything — I think that outweighs the distractibility.

Q: But, are we raising a generation of kids who will look as if they have attention deficit disorder?
Well, first, I see ADD much more as something caused by biology and not as something caused by the environment.

Second, we know now that plasticity is the key feature of the adolescent brain. So, 10,000 years ago, which isn’t really that long in evolutionary terms, we were hunting and gathering berries. Now we’re texting and going on the internet reading and all those sorts of things.

The key thing is that the human brain can change. Reading is a very good example. People have been around about six million years and reading is only 5,000 years old. So, most people have lived and died without ever reading a single word.

Q: OK. So, the brain is built to be able to adapt to a changing world, which means our teens will be more adept at taking in all this new information. But is there a downside to this kind of adaptation?
That’s what’s still being debated: If you spend a lot of your time multitasking, then, when it is time to zero in just one thing, are you going to be better or worse at it? One camp says it’s like cross training.

Story: Lights out, phones on: Many teens text all night long

You get good at handling a whole bunch of information and sorting through it so that when you want to zero in, it’s easy for the brain. The other people say, no, you only get good at what you practice.

I think the current generation can have the best of both worlds. They’ll get good at multitasking, which they’re likely to be doing in their adult jobs. But they can also develop the skills to zero in when they need to.

Q: So, it sounds like you’re saying that kids are going to have to consciously work at developing the ability to focus.
A: Yes. But it can come from things such as playing sports or music.

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