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Psychiatrist Dr. Gary Small recently expressed a sentiment that may have crossed the minds of parents and educators who see how much time teenagers spend chatting online and texting: He worries they may not be learning empathy skills.

The digital world has rewired teen brains and made them less able to recognize and share feelings of happiness, sadness or anger, said the UCLA professor of psychiatry and aging, who has also studied adolescent brains.

“The teenage brain is not fully formed,” Small said, speaking at a Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media seminar on digital learning in Santa Monica, Calif., last month. “I’m concerned that kids aren’t learning empathy skills. They’re not learning complex reasoning skills.”

Small noted that up to 60 percent of synapses in the brain are pruned away between birth and adolescence if they aren’t used. He cited the oft-quoted Kaiser Family Foundation study from 2010 that showed teens spend half their waking hours with technology, from cell phones to computers and/or television.

The study found that typical eight to 18-year-olds devote an average of seven hours and 38 minutes to using entertainment media across a typical day, or more than 53 hours a week. Thanks to multitasking, they are actually packing a total of 10 hours and 45 minutes’ worth of media content into those seven and a half hours.

Small’s fears aren’t universally shared, however. Other top researchers at the conference, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, said they’ve come to opposite conclusions when speaking with teens.

“Teens aren’t exchanging media interaction for face-to-face interaction,” said Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist who directs the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s research on teens, children and families. Teenagers told Pew researchers that they’d rather be with their friends in person than talking with them over electronic devices, Lenhart said.

While the Pew Research Center found texting by teens has increased dramatically–and that the average teen sends out over 100 text messages a day–Lenhart does not believe that face-to-face communication is disappearing or being displaced by the electronic kind.

Lenhart also said she knows of no studies that show a relationship between teenage technology use and teens’ ability to empathize with peers and adults.

Prof. Small, she said, may have been theorizing “more on supposition than actual causal studies, or even strong, large-sample correlational work.”

Scientists don’t yet know how many of the brain’s connections are associated with empathy, according to Small. He said research has found that teenage brains–including the amygdala, which controls whether a person picks up on nonverbal cues and his or her ability to understand others’ points of view–are quite malleable.

Small also cited a 2007 article by Steven J. Kirsh and Jeffrey R. W. Mounts in the journal Aggressive Behavior. The study found that playing violent video games reduced the chances that players could identify happy faces.

Contrary to these findings, Lenhart said teens interviewed by Pew in focus groups were sensitive to the ways in which mediated communication–texting and social-network-site interactions–did not provide the same social cues as other interactions.

“They are certainly in-tune enough with nonverbal cues to recognize where they are absent,” she added.

To cope with the absence of these cues, many young women told researchers they used emoticons–or emotional graphics–in texts or emails to show how they felt, she said.

Teenagers are able to hone their empathy skills online, however, and how youth relate to others often doesn’t have to do with whether they know the people personally, said Carrie James, a research director and principal investigator at Harvard’s Project Zero who also presented her findings at the conference.

When teens make choices online, young people do think about themselves most often, said James, who also directs the MacArthur Foundation-funded GoodPlay Project, which is investigating the ethical character of young people’s digital-media activity.

Teens also often think about people they know well, such as close friends or family, and they do consider their feelings when making choices online—such as by commenting on their Facebook profiles or by posting and tagging their friends in photos.

It doesn’t mean that they recognize how their actions might affect people they don’t know well, James added.

“What’s truly rare among the young people we’ve interviewed is ‘ethical thinking’—a capacity to think about the effects of one’s actions on more distant, unknown people and on larger communities,” James said.

The digital age, Small said last year, has rewired all of us to expect a new level of communication that can be both exciting and distracting at once.

“Many of us escalate from multitasking to partial continuous attention: we’re constantly scanning the environment for the next exciting bit of information—the next text message, IM, email, or even land-line phone call. That next ping or buzz or ring interrupts our focus and charges up the dopamine reward system as we anticipate something new and more exciting than the task at hand,” Small said in a contribution to a New York Times “Room for Debate” on digital distraction.

The Hechinger Report would love to hear more thoughts about how the digital world is affecting teenagers in classrooms. Has anyone else noticed that today’s wired teens seem to be having some trouble showing empathy?

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