1. Study suggests adolescent brain makes learning easier

    January 9, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Leiden Universiteit press release:

    The brains of adolescents react more responsively to receiving rewards. This can lead to risky behaviour, but, according to Leiden University research, it also has a positive function: it makes learning easier. This work has been published in Nature Communications.

    Alcohol abuse, reckless behaviour and poor choice in friends: all these are inextricably linked to puberty and adolescence. In the late teens, young people test their limits, and in many cases, push beyond their limits. This is due in part to increased activity in the corpus striatum, a small area deeply hidden away inside the brain. According to previous research, that part of the brain in young people is more responsive to receiving rewards.

    Sensitive

    Leiden University scientists are now able to show that this increased activity in the corpus striatum does not have only negative consequences. ‘The adolescent brain is very sensitive to feedback,’ says Sabine Peters, assistant professor of developmental and educational psychology and lead author of the article. ‘That makes adolescence the ideal time to acquire and retain new information.’

    Peters used a large data set for her research with MRI scans. Over a period of five years, no fewer than 736 brain scans were made of a total of 300 subjects between the ages of 8 and 29. According to Peters, the data set is about ten times larger than that of most comparable studies. In the MRI scanner, participants had to solve a memory game. During that game, the researchers gave feedback on the participants’ performance.

    Instructional feedback

    ‘It showed that adolescents responded keenly to educational feedback’, says Peters. ‘If the adolescent received useful feedback, then you saw the corpus striatum being activated. This was not the case with less pertinent feedback, for example, if the test person already knew the answer. The stronger your brain recognises that difference, the better the performance in the learning task. Brain activation could even predict learning performance two years into the future.’

    It has been known for some time that adolescent brains become more ‘successful’ when they receive the same reward as small children or adults. For example, it has already been proven that the use of drugs and/or alcohol in the teenage years is linked to powerful activation in the brain’s reward system. Peters: ‘It explains why adolescents and young adults go on a voyage of discovery, with all the positive and negative consequences that entails. You see the same behaviour in many animal species, including rats and mice.’


  2. Study suggests graphic anti-smoking posters may actually backfire

    December 30, 2017 by Ashley

    From the RAND Corporation press release:

    Exposing teens to graphic anti-smoking posters may actually increase the risk that some start smoking, according to a new RAND Corporation study.

    Conducted in a one-of-a-kind laboratory that replicates a convenience store, the study found that some teens who viewed posters depicting gruesome displays of smoking-caused diseases actually reported being more susceptible to cigarette smoking after viewing the displays during a shopping trip.

    The negative effects were found among teens who, before viewing the posters, reported being at some risk for smoking. The graphic posters did not appear to have any effect on teens who were committed to never smoking.

    “Our findings are counter intuitive and suggest that some anti-smoking strategies may actually go too far,” said William Shadel, lead author of the study and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

    The study is published online by the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

    Most of the tobacco industry’s advertising spending is focused on point-of-sale retail locations such as convenience stores. These outlets are awash in posters for tobacco products, signs for price promotions and the tobacco power wall — the display of cigarettes and other tobacco products that is prominent behind the checkout counter.

    Studies indicate that most adolescents visit locations that sell tobacco on a near weekly basis, placing them at significant risk for repeated exposure to tobacco advertising. Numerous studies have linked such exposures to more-positive attitudes toward smoking among adolescents.

    In response, some jurisdictions have proposed that graphic cigarette warning posters be displayed alongside the tobacco power wall and near the cash register. New York City mandated such warnings in 2009, but courts voided the regulation after lawsuits initiated by the tobacco industry.

    For the RAND study, researchers had teens visit a replica of a convenience store to buy a few items. With about half of the teens, the checkout counter or the wall behind the cash register displayed a prominent poster showing a photo of a diseased mouth and the words “WARNING: Cigarettes cause cancer.”

    The poster used was drawn from among nine that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had intended to put on cigarette packages and was the one had been rated as the most effective image by adolescents in previous research.

    The 441 adolescents aged 11 to 17 who participated in the RAND experiment were surveyed about their attitudes toward cigarette smoking and asked about other items both before and after shopping in the replica convenience store. About 5 percent of the participants reported prior cigarette smoking and about 20 percent were considered at-risk for future cigarette smoking before visiting the convenience store.

    Researchers say their analysis found that rather than disrupting the positive point-of-sale advertising in the convenience store, the graphic anti-smoking poster seemed to further heighten the smoking susceptibility of adolescents already considered at-risk for future tobacco use.

    “It is possible that at-risk adolescents responded to the graphic warning posters in a defensive manner, causing them to discount or downplay the health risks portrayed in the poster,” Shadel said. “It may also be possible that the graphic posters caused adolescents to divert their attention to the tobacco power wall, where they were exposed to pro-tobacco messages.”

    Researcher say that a shortcoming of their study is that they tested only one anti-smoking poster with the adolescents and they did not experiment with a variety of poster sizes or a greater variety of store placement.

    “Our findings do suggest that policymakers should be careful when considering graphic warning posters as part of anti-tobacco education in retail environments,” Shadel said. “This type of action either needs additional research or potentially should be abandoned in favor of better-demonstrated anti-smoking efforts.”


  3. Study suggests teens who help strangers have more confidence

    December 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Brigham Young University press release:

    Tis the season for helping at a soup kitchen, caroling at a care facility or shoveling a neighbor’s driveway.

    While those gifts of self surely help others, new research suggests that such selfless and serving behaviors have a specific benefit to teens.

    BYU School of Family Life professor Laura Padilla-Walker, in a longitudinal study she coauthored with a former student (Xinyuan Fu, Central University of Finance and Economics, China) in the Journal of Adolescence, found that adolescents who exhibited prosocial behavior — such as helping, sharing and comforting — toward strangers had higher self-esteem a year later. The same was not true for those in the study who exhibited prosocial behavior solely to friends and family.

    “This study helps us to understand that young people who help those with whom they do not have a relationship report feeling better about themselves over time,” Padilla-Walker said. “Given the importance of self-esteem during the teen years, this is an important finding. It suggests there might be something about helping strangers that impacts one’s moral identity or perceptions of self in a more significant way than helping friends or family members, although these are beneficial behaviors as well.”

    Padilla-Walker has authored multiple studies looking at prosocial behavior. While she’s found that teens who exhibit these positive behaviors stay out of trouble and have better familial relationships, this was her first time tying it to self-esteem.

    In the study, researchers looked at 681 adolescents, 11-14 years old, in two U.S. cities. They tracked them for four different time points, starting in 2008 through 2011. The participants responded to 10 statements such as “I feel useless at times” or “I am satisfied with myself” to assess self-esteem. Prosocial behavior was measured by self-reports, looking at various aspects of kindness and generosity, such as “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me” or “I go out of my way to cheer up my friends” or “I really enjoy doing small favors for my family.”

    “A unique feature of this study is that it explores helping behaviors toward multiple different targets,” Padilla-Walker said. “Not all helping is created equal, and we’re finding that prosocial behavior toward strangers is protective in a variety of ways that is unique from other types of helping. Another important finding is that the link between prosocial behavior and self-esteem is over a one-year time period and present across all three age lags in our study. Though not an overly large effect, this suggests a stable link between helping and feeling better about oneself across the early adolescent years.”

    For many adolescents, this time of life can be confusing for them. In a state of such self-exploration and self-identification, Padilla-Walker suggests that helping your kids find confidence, self-respect and self-worth can be of monumental importance.

    “For teens who sometimes have a tendency to focus on themselves, parents can help by providing opportunities for their children to help and serve others who are less fortunate,” Padilla-Walker said. “It is best if teens can directly see the benefit of their help on others. This can increase gratitude in young people and help them to focus less on their own problems. It is also a way to help them meet new friends or spend time with family. A family tradition of helping those who are less fortunate throughout the year or during the holidays is a great way to instill in children a desire to serve and a greater sense of self-worth.”


  4. Study suggests experiencing violence as a teen may lead to earlier romantic relationships

    December 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the American Sociological Association (ASA) press release:

    A new study has found that experiencing violence as an adolescent leads to early romantic relationships and cohabitating. On average, they found that victimized youth entered romantic relationships nine months earlier than non-victimized youth.

    “Overall, we find that victims begin dating sooner and progress more quickly from dating to first unions than do non-victims,” the researchers report in their article.

    “We theorize that these relationships could be a feasible coping mechanism because dating is more normative during adolescence,” said David Warner, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He explained that relationships can provide “a source of social support, a resource for instilling and improving self-esteem… particularly for these older adolescent victims who are also on the precipice of a number of developmental changes as they enter into high school.”

    The impact, however, depended on what age the violence episodes occurred. Those victimized in early adolescence are more likely to withdraw from dating and union formation whereas late adolescent victims appear to “overinvest in relationships—at least temporarily—displaying accelerated entry into dating and rapid progression to first unions.”

    To assess victimization, the researchers used data from adolescents who reported direct experience with four types of trauma including being “jumped,” shot, stabbed, or threatened by a knife or gun.

    However, Warner cautions, that while entering into relationships may seem healthy, entering them on average nine months earlier may be problematic. Nine months he says is “a whole different story for someone twelve or thirteen than for someone in their thirties.”

    In addition to dating, the study showed that victims of violence also began cohabiting more quickly than their peers – again, nine months early.

    “They start forming unions about nine months earlier too so, you’re really talking sort of 18 months ahead of schedule,” noted Tara Warner, the study’s lead author, also of the University of Nebraska.

    The differences they found varied by age but not gender, which surprised the researchers.

    “We speculate that may be due to just the overwhelming effect of violent victimization,” said Tara Warner.

    The researchers, along with Danielle C. Kuhl of Bowling Green State University, used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health. The results of their study, “Cut to the Quick: The Consequences of Youth Violent Victimization for the Timing of Dating Debut and First Union Formation,” were published in the December American Sociological Review.

    Past research shows that early cohabitation is fraught with risks including an increased risk of experiencing intimate partner violence, communication problems, and other negative outcomes.

    Tara Warner warns that both withdrawal and increased social activity could be symptomatic. For adolescents who are accelerating through relationships, she suggests the best advice is to “slow down.”

    “If [young people] can slow down a little bit, the literature would suggest that would be the most positive outcome.”


  5. Study suggests smartphone addiction creates imbalance in brain

    December 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Radiological Society of North America press release:

    Researchers have found an imbalance in the brain chemistry of young people addicted to smartphones and the internet, according to a study presented today at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).


  6. Study suggests teens get more sleep when school starts later

    December 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    A later school start time could mean teens are more likely to get adequate amounts of sleep, according to Penn State researchers.

    In a national study of urban teenagers, researchers found that high school start times after 8:30 a.m. increased the likelihood that teens obtained the minimum recommended amount of sleep, benefiting their overall health and well being.

    “Teens starting school at 8:30 a.m. or later were the only group with an average time in bed permitting eight hours of sleep, the minimum recommended by expert consensus,” said lead author Orfeu Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. “Later school start times were associated with later wake times in our large, diverse sample.”

    Buxton and colleagues report their findings Dec. 1 in Sleep Health, the Journal of the National Sleep Foundation, which devoted an entire special issue to the topic.

    Teens with the earliest high school start times — 7:00-7:29 a.m. — obtained 46 minutes less time in bed on average compared with teens with high school start times at 8:30 a.m. or later.

    School start times after 8:30 a.m. were associated with increased time in bed, extending morning sleep by 27-57 minutes compared to those teens with earlier school start times.

    A common argument against later school start times is an assumption that teens will just stay up later.

    “The presumption is if you let kids start school later they will simply go to sleep later and still not get enough sleep,” Buxton said. “But that’s a hypothetical scenario. There wasn’t data to back that up.”

    While researchers did find that teens with the earliest school start times were going to bed earlier than those with 8:30 a.m. or later, the teens with earlier start times still did not get the recommended amount of sleep. Only those teens with schools that had a start time of 8:30 a.m. or later actually got the recommended amount of sleep, Buxton said.

    One theory is that, despite going to bed earlier than their peers, teens with the earliest school start times didn’t get enough sleep possibly due to anticipation of an early wake time the following morning, according to Buxton.

    In addition, the investigators considered other research that looked at teens’ “sleep debt,” where teens make up for lost sleep on non-school days, leading them to wake up consistently and significantly later than those on school days.

    Both anticipation and sleep debt can misalign teens’ circadian clocks from expected early wake timing on school days, interfering with having consistent sleep.

    Four hundred and thirteen teenagers completed an online daily diary each evening, beginning after 7 p.m., during seven consecutive days, including school days and non-school days during both the academic year and the summer, which was defined as September through May and June through August, respectively.

    From each diary entry, researchers looked at the participants’ reports of the previous night’s bedtime, the time the teen woke up in the morning, whether or not the teen went to school, and the school start times.

    Data collection included daily diary data from a subsample of the parent study, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which follows a longitudinal birth cohort of children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 United States cities.


  7. Study links teenage depression to father’s depression

    November 28, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University College London press release:

    Adolescents whose fathers have depressive symptoms are more likely to experience symptoms of depression themselves, finds a new study led by UCL researchers.

    While the link between mothers’ depression and depression in their children is well-established, the new Lancet Psychiatry study is the first to find an association between depression in fathers and their teenaged children, independent of whether the mother has depression, in a large sample in the general population. The effects of fathers’ and mothers’ depression on their children’s symptoms were similar in magnitude.

    “There’s a common misconception that mothers are more responsible for their children’s mental health, while fathers are less influential — we found that the link between parent and teen depression is not related to gender,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Gemma Lewis (UCL Psychiatry).

    “Family-focused interventions to prevent depression often focus more on mothers, but our findings suggest we should be just as focused on fathers,” she said.

    The researchers drew on two large longitudinal studies of children: Growing up in Ireland, and the Millennium Cohort Study in England and Wales, using data from 6070 and 7768 families from the two studies, respectively. Parental depressive symptoms were assessed using a questionnaire when the children were 9 and 7 years old in the two cohorts, and then adolescent depressive symptoms were assessed when the children were 13 and 14 years old. The study samples were population-based, meaning they included people who experienced symptoms of depression but had not sought treatment.

    After adjusting for confounding factors such as maternal depression, family income and parental alcohol use, the researchers found that for every 3-point (one standard deviation) increase on the Mood and Feelings Questionnaire (MFQ; a commonly-used measure of depressive symptoms) on the part of fathers, there was an associated 0.2-point increase in the adolescent’s MFQ score. The findings were replicated in both independent study samples.

    Incidence of depression increases markedly at the beginning of adolescence, so the researchers say that understanding the risk factors at that age can be key to preventing depression later in life.

    “Men are less likely to seek treatment for depression. If you’re a father who hasn’t sought treatment for your depression, it could have an impact on your child. We hope that our findings could encourage men who experience depressive symptoms to speak to their doctor about it,” said Dr Lewis.

    Previous studies have shown links between paternal depression and poor behavioural and emotional outcomes in their children, but no large study in the general population (as opposed to a clinical population) has looked at the link with adolescent depression while taking into account maternal depression as well.

    “The mental health of both parents should be a priority for preventing depression among adolescents. There has been far too much emphasis on mothers but fathers are important as well,” said the study’s senior author, Professor Glyn Lewis (UCL Psychiatry).


  8. Study looks at mental health risks of too much screen time

    November 24, 2017 by Ashley

    From the San Diego State University press release:

    Increased time spent in front of a screen — in the form of computers, cell phones and tablets — might have contributed to an uptick in symptoms of depression and suicide-related behaviors and thoughts in American young people, especially girls, according to a new study by San Diego State University professor of psychology Jean Twenge. The findings point to the need for parents to monitor how much time their children are spending in front of media screens.

    “These increases in mental health issues among teens are very alarming,” Twenge said. “Teens are telling us they are struggling, and we need to take that very seriously.”

    Twenge, along with SDSU graduate student Gabrielle Martin and colleagues Thomas Joiner and Megan Rogers at Florida State University, looked at questionnaire data from more than 500,000 U.S. teens found in two anonymous, nationally representative surveys that have been conducted since 1991. They also looked at data suicide statistics kept by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    They found that the suicide rate for girls aged 13-18 increased by 65 percent between 2010 and 2015, and the number of girls experiencing so-called suicide-related outcomes — feeling hopeless, thinking about suicide, planning for suicide or attempting suicide — rose by 12 percent. The number of teen girls reporting symptoms of severe depression increased by 58 percent.

    “When I first saw these sudden increases in mental health issues, I wasn’t sure what was causing them,” said Twenge, author of iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — And Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. “But these same surveys ask teens how they spend their leisure time, and between 2010 and 2015, teens increasingly spent more time with screens and less time on other activities. That was by far the largest change in their lives during this five-year period, and it’s not a good formula for mental health.”

    The researchers returned to the data and looked to see if there was a statistical correlation between screen-time and depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. They found that 48 percent of teens who spent five or more hours per day on electronic devices reported at least one suicide-related outcome, compared to only 28 percent of those who spent less than an hour a day on devices. Depressive symptoms were more common in teens who spent a lot of time on their devices, as well.

    The findings fit with previous studies that have linked spending more time on social media to unhappiness.

    On the positive side, the researchers found that spending time away from screen and engaging in in-person social interaction, sports and exercise, doing homework, attending religious services, etc., was linked to having fewer depressive symptoms and suicide-related outcomes. The researchers reported their findings today in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.

    While economic struggles are generally thought to be linked to depression and suicide, the U.S. economy was improving between 2010 and 2015, so that is unlikely to be the primary driver of these increases, Twenge noted.

    “Although we can’t say for sure that the growing use of smartphones caused the increase in mental health issues, that was by far the biggest change in teens’ lives between 2010 and 2015,” she said.

    The good news? You don’t have to totally give up on electronic devices to lower your risk for depression and suicide-relayed outcomes. Twenge said that limiting screen-time to one or two hours per day would statistically fall into the safe zone for device usage.


  9. Study suggests removing digital devices from the bedroom can improve sleep for children, teens

    November 9, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Penn State press release:

    Removing electronic media from the bedroom and encouraging a calming bedtime routine are among recommendations Penn State researchers outline in a recent manuscript on digital media and sleep in childhood and adolescence.

    The manuscript appears in the first-ever special supplement on this topic in Pediatrics and is based on previous studies that suggest the use of digital devices before bedtime leads to insufficient sleep.

    The recommendations, for clinicians and parents, are:

      • 1. Make sleep a priority by talking with family members about the importance of sleep and healthy sleep expectations;

    2. Encourage a bedtime routine that includes calming activities and avoids electronic media use;

    3. Encourage families to remove all electronic devices from their child or teen’s bedroom, including TVs, video games, computers, tablets and cell phones;

    4. Talk with family members about the negative consequences of bright light in the evening on sleep; and

    5. If a child or adolescent is exhibiting mood or behavioral problems, consider insufficient sleep as a contributing factor.

    “Recent reviews of scientific literature reveal that the vast majority of studies find evidence for an adverse association between screen-based media consumption and sleep health, primarily delayed bedtimes and reduced total sleep duration,” said Orfeu Buxton, associate professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State and an author on the manuscript.

    The reasons behind this adverse association likely include time spent on screens replacing time spent sleeping; mental stimulation from media content; and the effects of light interrupting sleep cycles, according to the researchers.

    Buxton and other researchers are further exploring this topic. They are working to understand if media use affects the timing and duration of sleep among children and adolescents; the role of parenting and family practices; the links between screen time and sleep quality and tiredness; and the influence of light on circadian physiology and sleep health among children and adolescents.


  10. Study suggests neighborhood’s quality influences children’s behaviors through teens

    November 8, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health press release:

    The quality of the neighborhood where a child grows up has a significant impact on the number of problem behaviors they display during elementary and teenage years, a study led by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researchers suggests.

    The findings, published in the November issue of Social Science & Medicine, indicate that neighborhood quality has significant and long-term effects on child and adolescent problem behaviors, findings that can help inform national, state, and local housing policy and community investment decisions.

    Using survey data collected between 1997 and 2007 on 3,563 children, the researchers found that children seven- to 12-years- old had significantly more serious behavior problems if they lived in neighborhoods that their parent rated as “poor” for raising children, compared to those living in the “excellent” neighborhoods. For the study, parents rated their neighborhoods as either ‘excellent,’ ‘very good,’ ‘good,’ ‘fair,’ or ‘poor’ for raising children, with 20 being the highest score, for excellent, and zero, for poor. Externalizing problem behavior scores were 1.7 points lower for those in ‘excellent’ neighborhoods; the average problem behavior score was 4, with possible values ranging from 0-20.

    Past studies have shown that externalizing behaviors — or problem behaviors that are directed toward the external environment, such as fighting, stealing, destroying property, or refusing to follow rules — affect 6 to 7 percent of children in industrialized western societies, a rate that increases with age. Many children with these problems continue to be disruptive and exhibit problems into adolescence.

    Over the decade of follow-up for the study, parents completed questionnaires about their child’s behavior. Youth living in neighborhoods rated “excellent” had additional decreases in externalizing behaviors compared to those living in “poor” quality neighborhoods. The lower levels of behavior problems among adolescents in better neighborhoods was primarily explained by lower levels of parental distress and family conflict. Parents’ ratings of neighborhood quality were not associated with externalizing behaviors among children six-years-old and younger.

    These behaviors predict more serious adverse outcomes later in life, such as substance abuse, delinquency, and violence, explains study leader Anne Riley, PhD, professor in the Department of Population, Family, and Reproductive Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health. Previous studies have linked poor neighborhood quality to a higher risk of these behaviors, she adds. However, the timing of these neighborhood effects and how neighborhoods affect children’s behavior through their effect on parents’ stress and family conflict has not been previously shown.

    To develop a better understanding of neighborhood effects on externalizing behaviors, the researchers used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a longitudinal study that has surveyed thousands of families over multiple generations since 1968 about the economic, social, and health factors that affect them. As part of this survey, primary caregivers of children aged three years and older completed a 10-item Behavioral Problem Index (such as whether the child was “disobedient” or “mean to others”) was “often,” “sometimes” or “not” true.

    Neighborhood quality was also rated by independent observers based on five conditions, including deterioration of housing units, neglect of the street, garbage on the street or sidewalk, signs of drug use on the street, and noise outside the home. Their rating scores were essentially the same as those of parents.

    Additionally, the survey assessed family resources, including income and education, and other measures that impact children’s psychological functioning and behavior, such as parental distress, family conflict, non-corporal discipline, parental monitoring, and deviant peer affiliation.

    Riley notes that the connection between neighborhood effects and a child’s age might be simply a function of time — the longer a child is exposed to their environment, the stronger that environment’s influence is likely to be. Additionally, having better family conditions might buffer the effects of a poor quality neighborhood, or strengthen the effects of a good neighborhood.

    A striking result for the study, she adds, is that most caregivers were well aware that they lived in a neighborhood that wasn’t the best environment for raising children. Other research has shown that many are unable to leave due to circumstances such as cost of quality housing, proximity to jobs, or, for minority families, the difficulty of living in unfamiliar communities. As income inequality has grown over the past several decades, Riley explains, many parents are forced to raise their children in places that feel chaotic or unsafe, circumstances that are far from ideal for development. Future studies will be necessary to assess whether housing programs currently in place mitigate these factors and lead to fewer externalizing behaviors in at-risk children.

    “I think this is a wakeup call for understanding the power of neighborhoods to contribute to the crime and behavior problems that we see in our society,” she says. “Our results suggest that neighborhood effects are something that we need to tune into in a much more explicit and purposeful way.”