ANALYSIS




The media item, “The Teenage Brain”, is part of the 'Connect With Kids' series produced by the CWK Network. This documentary series has been nominated for a number of Emmy Awards and Parents Choice Awards as well as numerous other industry awards. The focus of the CWK organisation is to help students, parents and teachers cope with the demands placed on, and difficulties experienced by, teenagers as they develop into mature adults.



The language, formatting and presentation of the item is appropriate given the target audience (high-school students, parents and teachers). Although neuroscientific concepts are explained, this is done predominantly in layman terms and the language used is at a level that children, parents and their teachers can all understand. “The Teenage Brain” features multiple ‘scientific images’, such as brains with different sections highlighted in colour and animations of active neural networks. The graphics are not utilised to illustrate the concepts being discussed, however, but are merely present in the background. It is most likely that the graphics are being used to make the video appear more scientific and also as a means of holding the attention of the children watching. Indeed, the video as a whole follows the conventions of popular programming, treading a fine line between education and entertainment in the hope of teaching their viewers useful information whilst simultaneously keeping them engaged.


There are clear attempts to play on the emotions of the viewers as achieved through the combination of the text, graphics and topics. For example, when discussing neural pruning there is a video of pruning shears superimposed over the image of a brain. The imagery utilised would be familiar to the viewers who may have no concept of neural pruning otherwise, and this would provoke a jarring, emotional response as parents imagine this happening to their children’s brains or students imagining it happening to themselves. “The Teenage Brain” also plays off the parents fears of their children failing school, abusing drugs and alcohol and the impact that these will have on their future. Whilst it is possible that this tactic is used to emotionally engage the parents, teachers and children thus helping the information to penetrate, the CWK Network could also have had a commercial motive behind the utilisation of this technique.


The experts and narrator of the video discuss the idea of two sensitive periods of development (from birth to three or four years and ten years to puberty) and the importance of enrichment during these times. Whilst ‘The Teenage Brain’ does not delve deeply into the neuroscience behind these periods, its claims are nonetheless sound with much of the information provided by legitimate professionals, for example Dr Dan Siegel who is a leader in his field. The critical period from birth to three or four years is supported by numerous studies, for example Chugani’s 1998 study which highlighted rapid cortical maturation in this age group. Recently, research has shifted its focus onto the possibility of a second sensitive period from 10-puberty with behavioural evidence suggesting that this is a time of great physical and mental development (Chambers, Taylor & Potenza, 2003). The claims of the video in regards to the importance of enrichment within and the difficulty of learning outside of these periods are also supported by scientific literature. Zeanah’s 2009 study demonstrates that certain areas of the brain show high levels of plasticity during the sensitive periods and that their development responds to environmental stimuli. Further, he states that whilst neural development can occur later in life it requires a much greater level of exertion to achieve the same connections.


Despite the generally correct theoretical basis of the video, some factual deficits are apparent. The creators of the video seem to have over-simplified the idea of neural development by completely disregarding the impact of genetics, emphasising only the importance of enrichment during the critical periods. “The Teenage Brain” uses examples of celebrities who began practising their craft at a very early age, such as Tiger Woods and Jodie Foster, as examples of how critical period stimulation allows the easy acquisition of skills. What the video fails to mention is that these people, and indeed all prodigies, generally possess natural talent and that normal people who lack such genetics will not reach the same level of achievement regardless of critical period exposure. It is possible that Yujung, the talented young girl featured in the video, has a genetic component to her musical talent as exhibited by the fact that both her parents and sister are also skilful musicians. These examples obviously possess a level of genetic influence. As we know through extensive twin studies, brain development is a combination of both environment and genetics, the mention of which has been neglected in “The Teenage Brain” (McCartney, Harris & Bernieri, 1990). The creators of the video also fail to address the impact of stress on neural development. McCormick & Mathews' 2010 study shows the influence of stress in altering synaptic structure and function in pathways mediating goal directed behaviour, learning and memory.


Overall, “The Teenage Brain” is a theoretically sound, informational video. Whilst somewhat over-simplified and sensational at times, it could prove to be an important educational tool for parents, teachers and children. The creators have been able to effectively communicate complex neuroscientific concepts to it's target audience in a manner that is simultaneously accessible, educational and engaging.




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