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Anything Scarier Than the School Funding Crisis? – Check out Two Recent Studies on Adolescent Brain Development

The mission of Community for Excellent Public Schools is to advocate for the protection and preservation of excellent public schools in Santa Monica and Malibu.  So, a posting on adolescent brain development doesn’t quite seem to fit the mission. However, every so often something comes along that is so startling that it demands attention.  The findings of two unrelated studies, coming out within a week of each other, are just that.
The first was deftly analyzed by The New York Times in a January 20th article by Tamar Lewin entitled, “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online”.  In it, a new Kaiser Family Foundation study found that American kids aged 8 to 18 spend seven and a half hours PER DAY plugged into and consuming media from some sort of electronic device.  Even more startling, since most multitask while they’re consuming media, i.e. surf the web while talking on the phone, or texting while listening to music, the actual amount of digital media that is being consumed during those seven and a half hours is closer to 11 hours – each and every day.  In short, every waking hour that our kids are not in school, they’re plugged in.
This reminded me of an essay I had written for my then thirteen-year-old son about the importance of doing one thing at a time.  It was received with a gesture I have now come to understand as the urban teen-aged anthem — the requisite blank stare.  At least at that time, he was doing only one thing, even if it was mocking his mother.  That was the first time I truly felt like a dinosaur. 
The second scary story about adolescent brain development came out just five days later.  On January 25th NPR’s Morning Edition aired a touching little story by Michelle Trudeau called “Teen Drinking May Cause Irreversible Brain Damage.”    This story reported on a study led by neuroscientist Susan Tapert of the University of California, San Diego in which brain scans of teens who drank heavily were compared with the scans of teens who didn’t. Listen to the story on NPR.
“Tapert’s team found damaged nerve tissue in the brains of the teens who drank. The researchers believe this damage negatively affects attention span in boys, and girls’ ability to comprehend and interpret visual information,” Trudeau’s story reports.  Most startling to me, next to the fact that this damage could be irreversible, is the study’s threshold for how much drinking could cause this potentially irreversible damage to a teen’s brain.  The study tested the brains of teen “binge” drinkers – and their definition of “binge?”  “They were drinking on average once or twice a month, but when they did drink, it was to a relatively high quantity of at least four or five drinks an occasion,” Tapert reported in the article. 
A couple of years ago, I was interviewed by ABC News for an article they were doing about “helicopter moms”.  You know, the ones who won’t let go.  The question was put to me, “Do you really think that kids today face greater dangers than you did when you were growing up?”  I answered, “absolutely, yes.”  And I still believe that now.
Comments anyone?
And tune in for the next CEPS blog entry, which will report on SMMUSD Superintendent Tim Cuneo’s Budget Reports to the Communities.

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