Decline in Teen Mental Health Attributed to Late Night Stimulation

Over 1,100 teens in Australia exhibited low self-esteem and aggressive behavior linked to late-night phone and social media usage. 


The neurological dangers implicated in overusing our devices are well-established. From the incessant cognitive itching to allay novelty bias to a consistent uptick in distracted driving accidents and deaths to the circadian chaos of excessive blue light, our memory and attention are not the only skills being affected. While no long-term studies have traced these issues from childhood through adulthood—yet—one simple fact is inarguable: too much screen time is not healthy. 

Now a longitudinal study of over a eleven hundred high school students in Australia has revealed another disturbing aspect of technology addiction: a decline in mental health.

Poor sleep due to late-night calling and texting is the culprit. The group of thirteen- to sixteen-year-olds saw a stark decrease in performance over a four-year period, from 2010-2013. While previous research has linked the blue light emitted from phones to poor sleep, and sleep is necessary for optimal health and emotional regulation, this study is considered the first to link all three, even though anecdotally teachers have noticed increasing sluggishness in their students for years.

Not only was educational performance hindered. Important social skills were also diminished, says Lynette Vernon, lead researcher of this study at Murdoch University in Perth:

The outcomes of not coping – lower self-esteem, feeling moody, externalising behaviours and less self-regulation, aggressive and delinquent behaviours – the levels increase as sleep problems increased.

It’s not only the light affecting students, Vernon observes. Cognitive arousal when receiving a text or social media like also keeps the receiver primed for further reaction at a time when their body and mind should be winding down. Instead of drifting to sleep their brain remains on alert for the next ding.

As a preventive measure Vernon suggests a “physical boundary” so that teens cannot access their phone at night. Yet Vernon is on shaky ground here. Technology is one of the least discussed yet most pervasive addictions of our era. Many parents are addicted as well. Admission is the first hurdle to clear, something many are unwilling to do. 

If the child has become accustomed to constant stimulation the emotional withdrawal will not be pretty. This sets up a power struggle between child and adult during a time when such struggles persist anyway. The adult has to be an adult in this case. Vernon thinks change is possible with integrity and communication:

Back when they’re aged seven to 10, you have to role model – you put your phone in a basket at night, it doesn’t go into your bedroom, it becomes normalised in the household and you have a much easier job.

Until we recognize how damaging technology addiction is we won’t make much headway. It is an insidious drug given how much our phones have become security blankets, always attached and within reach. Hopefully as more research like this emerges adults will live up to their title. If not the cycle will only grow worse as their children grow up having normalized a life lived entirely on a screen. Where our mental health goes then is anybody’s guess.

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.