Episode 15

full
Published on:

29th Sep 2020

Left out of the conversation: Teenagers and Covid-19 - Sarah-Jayne Blakemore

In this episode we speak to Professor Sarah-Jane Blakemore from the Department of Psychology, about the adolescent brain and the return to school.

We think about the effects of social isolation on teenagers, the long term impact of Covid-19 and we ask if we are doing the right thing by having students return to university during a pandemic.

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is Professor of Psychology and leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group. Her group's research focuses on the development of social cognition and decision-making in the human adolescent brain, and adolescent mental health, running behavioural studies in schools and in the lab, and neuroimaging studies, with adolescents and adults.

More Information:

https://sites.google.com/site/blakemorelab/

Twitter - https://twitter.com/sjblakemore

Transcript

1

Speaker 1

0:00

Hello, and welcome to the university. I'm your host, Nick Saffell. In this episode, we speak just Professor Sarah Jane Blakemore, from the Department of Psychology, about the adolescent brain and the return to school, we think about the effects of social isolation on teenagers, the long term impact of COVID-19. And we asked if we are doing the right thing by having students returned to university during a pandemic. We all know that the return to school is looking different this year, from a teenager's point of view, what are some of the biggest differences. So some might be that things are missing, but some might be real pluses.

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Speaker 2

0:37

Cool is very different. It has a lot of young people that are limited to one or a very small number of classrooms for that essence, to try to minimize movement around the school. There are one way systems they the shedule of the day has changed. Of course, there is isolation, if they get a any of the symptoms of covid. And those symptoms are not, you know, completely unambiguous. So if children are getting colds, often families or schools are worried that they might have covid. So that means they have to stay off school until they get it anyway, it's very, very disrupted education. And I mean, I don't have any good solutions to this, I think schools are, are kind of firefighting in a very, very difficult circumstances. And actually, the schools that I know of are mostly doing a really great job in tough circumstances where there's a lot of worry around, and anxiety. But ultimately, the school teachers head teachers really care about educating the young people there. I mean, young people are, you know, can be quite resilient and adaptive. So, young people I have spoken to my own children, their friends, young people I work with, seem to be coping quite well, with with school with going back to school, what I think they found particularly difficult was locked out and not being in school for so many months, many teenagers were not in school for a period of six months when they should have been. And that really is difficult, not only because of the lack of learning, of education of education, academic subjects, but also because of the lack of social interaction and routine and structure that school provides that I think, is what young people that I know, found particularly challenging. Do you think teenagers are sort of taking it in their stride, then I think there are a huge, huge individual differences, some teenagers seem to be coping really well. Others have really suffered over the last few months, partly because of the lack of social interaction face to face social interaction, in the constant changes of rules with regard to social interaction, and also anxiety, anxiety about the virus about family members getting the virus that has affected young people in many different ways. And some, some are more resilient to it than others, just just as adults,

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Speaker 1

3:02

we're hearing a lot about the sort of behavior of young people respect to the spreading of COVID-19. And how that affects older generations. It's almost as if generations of being set up in opposition to each other. Well, that's sort of the way it talks about at least in the UK. Now, is there really anything different about the behavior of adolescents compared to other generations? Not with respect to like the spreading of the virus, but more generally, you know, what's sort of special about the, you know, the teenage, adolescent brain?

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Speaker 2

3:32

I mean, you're you just ask the most enormous questions. Sorry, I didn't start by saying that. I really find it sad and distressing, this kind of us versus them, blame culture where young people have been blamed for just doing what they naturally need to do go out and socialize, meet other people affiliate with their peers, meet romantic partners. They're just doing what teenagers and adolescents young people have always done. And that and they're being you know, in the media, and by politicians, they're being blamed for this natural behavior. And it really is creating a sort of polarization between younger people and older people. I think that's absolutely the wrong way to go about this. And there is a lot of evidence that the best way to encourage positive behaviors, for example, health behaviors, in young people is to educate them about the harmful effects of unhealthy behaviors, let's say, and then encourage them and incentivize them to create their own campaigns where they can educate each other about why it's a good idea, for example, to social socially distance from each other in this case, it's really, there is no evidence that adults lecturing and blaming. Young people will have any positive effect on young people's behavior. In fact, it might be counterproductive. So you also asked about how the brain and behavior is different in young people in an adult? And that really is a big question. And the answer is that both behavior and the brain are undergoing huge amounts of development in adolescence. And there are behaviors that are really quite different in adolescents. Of course, one caveat here is that not all adolescents are the same. There are huge individual differences. Some adolescents show take teenage typical behaviors, whereas others don't. That's the kind of proviso but um, so in terms of behavior, we know that behaviors like risk taking and sensation seeking are heightened in adolescence, we also know that those kinds of behaviors like risk taking behaviors are most likely to occur when teenagers are with their friends. So that propensity to take risks, when you're with your friends is heightened in adolescence compared with in other age groups. And this is because adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer influence. And that's probably for perfectly conferred adaptive reasons, like adolescents need to affiliate with their peers, work out where they are in the social hierarchy become part of a peer group that's really important process, as adolescents are becoming, or in their journey towards becoming an independent adult. So that they're just a few examples of behaviors that seem to seem to be different in adolescents compared with adults, in terms of the brain. The brain is undergoing very substantial and protracted development during adolescence in all sorts of ways, both in terms of its structure and its function. And we used to think 25 years ago that the brain stops developing in childhood, we now know that that's absolutely not true. We know this, because we're able to scan the living human brain using MRI scanning. And studies that have used MRI scans, to to track changes in the child and adolescent brain, as children and adolescents grow up have shown that, in fact, the brain continues to develop right throughout childhood, and throughout adolescence, and even into the 20s and early 30s.

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Speaker 1

7:21

Sorry, for the huge question I'll make this one is a slightly shorter one. So what are we sort of hearing from teenagers right now? You know, one of the biggest things in their lives is obviously school. But as they return to institutions, sort of what are we hearing? What are the sort of channels for their voices to be heard on this sort of unusual return to school?

7:42

Is your question about adolescents being involved in decision making? And

1

Speaker 1

7:47

yeah, I think so it's, where is their voice in this part of the conversation?

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Speaker 2

7:52

Where is their voice? You know, where it's such a shame and such a lost opportunity, not to include young people in these policy decisions, that the policy decisions affect them? They should really have a say in what the in what the policies are? I mean, of course, they shouldn't have the only say, because they might not have information that no scientists and and policy makers have, but they should have some say and yes, I mean, the evidence suggests that when adolescents do have a say, when they have a say, in creating campaigns, for example, those campaigns work more efficiently than campaigns that are just led by adults.

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Speaker 1

8:36

In terms of public health guidelines, you know, should that be sort of guide? You know, the guidelines are sort of put out regardless of age, do you think teenagers should be given a different set of guidelines sort of set, you know, now that we know that science sort of tells us that different age groups behave differently?

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Speaker 2

8:54

So Young, we know that the social needs of young people are different from the social needs of adults, we know that, for example, let's just take adolescence because that's the that's the period of development that I I've been working on for the last 18 years. And we know that adolescence is a kind of sensitive period of social development, the social brain is undergoing huge amounts of change, as is social behavior. This is the period of life when young people need to affiliate with their peers peer evaluations matter more in adolescence than at any other age. And adolescents need, they require social interaction in order to do social learning, and also the development of best their own self identity. So to impose the same kind of limits on social interaction in adolescents and adults might not make sense if you take into account the social needs of adolescence. I know that recently. I mean, the rules change all the time, at the time that we're doing this interview. There's the rule of six around the country. But it's different in the different developed countries. And in Scotland, for example, the rule of six does not include children under the age of 12. Again, children under the age of 12 really do need to play with other children in order to do social emotional learning, it's really critical. So I can see why that has been brought into policy in Scotland, and Wales. In Scotland. Also, there are different rules for teenagers aged 12 to 18, compared to adults, and again, I think what that demonstrates is that Scotland has the social needs of children and teenagers in mind when it's making its public policy decisions. And I think that's a really positive outcome in Scotland, it's not happening in England, maybe it will, at some point,

1

Speaker 1

10:55

some thinking, you know, the circumstances surrounding COVID-19 are affecting a much broader population because of the mental health apps. So effects, but the physical effects are sort of only, you know, affecting such a small amount of the population. So thinking sort of in the long term, you know, this is what I'm thinking, what are the sort of effects on mental health that aren't really sort of being talked about? Because we only really hear about the physical side?

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Speaker 2

11:21

The first thing to say is that the physical side? Well, I don't downplay the physical side, actually, because as we learn more about coded, it seems that it's not, it's complicated. And it's not just mortality rates that we need to worry about, but also what is being termed long COVID, for example, and I do know a few people who have long COVID, they young and healthy or previously healthy, and they've had, they've been really unwell for the since March when they first got COVID. So over six months now, and they still have, they still have various physical problems. So I don't want to downplay the physical consequences of COVID. This is a nasty disease that I don't think anyone wants to get, um, having said that, the physical effects of covid are one element that need to be factored into the policy equations. Another element, another factor is the is mental health, mental health of people who, for example, might be socially isolated, because of their social rules, or because of lockdowns, the mental health of people who might have lost their jobs, or have been pushed into poverty or who are worried about that, that mental health is we are learning from the large number of studies that have been carried out on mental health of people during the last six months, during COVID. across the world, mental health is really suffering in some people, and that absolutely needs to be factored into any policy decisions.



12:54

Because it was basically I just wanted to, you know, think about

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Speaker 1

12:59

what the effect of isolation is going to have on children, you know, or adolescents and teenagers is basically the simple question that was going to ask,

2

Speaker 2

13:06

that's, it's a great question, what effect social isolation is might have on children and adolescents. When the lockdown in the UK first happened in March, and I and some of my colleagues immediately started to worry about this, it was such an obvious thing to worry about for us because we work on the social needs of adolescents and social brain development in adolescence. We know that adolescents require social interaction with peers in order to undergo normal social learning and development. So we got really worried about what depriving them of face to face peer interaction would do to their development and their mental health. And with with a couple of colleagues, Dr. Livia to mover and Dr. Amy Orban, we started to write a review on this. And this is partly because we had already, for the previous nine months, we had already been planning to do a study looking at the effects of social isolation on adolescent behavior and adolescent brains. just purely by coincidence, we have been planning, we've been planning the study, partly because Livia, to mover, who's a research fellow at Cambridge had been a postdoc at MIT and had been researching the effects of social isolation on adult brain and behavior. So Livia wants to come to Cambridge, to work with me to look at the effects of social isolation on adolescent brain behavior. So we've already been discussing this, when this kind of so called natural experiment of COVID lockdown came came into place. And, and it made us think we really, we really need to think about this and to think about what the consequences might be now. We know that adolescence is a sensitive period of social development. However, most of the research on the effects of social isolation on the brain and behavior Mental Health in adolescents comes from animal studies. And that's because up until now, it has been thought to be just not really ethical to isolate adolescents, from their friends and to look at the effects on on their brains and behavior. But you can do that in animals. And many, many labs around the world for the last 40 or 50 years have been looking at that in rodents. So mice and rats. And what they have found is that social isolation in adolescent mice and rats, they go through about 35 days of adolescence, those rodents, and social socially isolating them during their adolescence has unique effects, and more damaging effects on their brain development and behavioral development and mental health, compared with the same social isolation carried out either before adolescence or before puberty, or in adulthood. So there is something about adolescence, that means that it's a period where social interaction with other animals is required.

1

Speaker 1

16:06

So I'm thinking about, like, going back to the return to sort of school and sort of education. And we've talked about the importance, you know, the mental health of isolation, and so forth, and the things that might have happened over the last six months. So thinking about it, is it sort of realistic to expect sort of educational sort of institutions to sort of prioritize sort of mental health, more over education? For example, I'm thinking young children, and we've heard a lot more about trying to put more emphasis on play. Is that a sort of false sort of choice?

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Speaker 2

16:40

I think that's such a good question. And I would say, absolutely, I mean, we know that children and adolescents are going back to school after six months away, in many cases, with some of whom have heightened levels of anxiety and other mental health problems. We know that from from data and schools are reporting that to so a focus on their mental health is now more important than it ever has been. And it had, it had been becoming more and more important, as it seemed that over the last decade or two mental health problems in adolescence have been on the increase, and now more so than ever because of covid because of lockdown.

1

Speaker 1

17:22

Okay, so thinking about like schools, and obviously now sort of switching to slightly to universities, because obviously, you're, you're obviously a lecturer, and some thinking should sort of university sort of change some of the sort of priorities and principles that have previously guided them. And then thinking personally, are there any things that you are sort of thinking about changing to your approach to this sort of teaching year?

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Speaker 2

17:51

If I start with the second question first, so my approach to this teaching it I mean, it's the first year that I will have one is my first year that I've ever taught in Cambridge, because prior to Cambridge, I was at UCL. And it's the first year I will have ever taught lectures online. And I mean, we're all you know, we're all struggling to make our lectures to put our lectures online and to make them as interesting and interactive as possible. There are all sorts of ways you can encourage online interaction with students to make them feel involved and engaged. So that that's the first I mean, that all University lecturers and professors around the country around the world are doing the same thing. It's, it's like nothing we've ever experienced before, but we're trying to make it as interactive and an enjoyable and engaging as possible for students. The second question, though, is about your first question you asked was about the student experience this year, and actually, we're only just starting to learn about it because it's September, and students really just going back in most universities in Cambridge, they haven't come back yet. I have been hearing so many distressing stories about students, you know, these are 18 year olds, adolescents, leaving home for the very first time going to universities and basically being isolated in their rooms. Even if there isn't a if they're not in actual isolation, because of COVID COVID, just because of the rules make it very difficult for them to go out. And then lots of them are in isolation because someone in their dorm lover test tested positive. I mean, I do wonder whether this is the right strategy for such young people going out for the very first time living independently for the very first time. I do wonder whether there is learning to be done from other countries who might have done it differently and done it better. But it's a learning curve. We've never been in this situation before. But I do question whether this is really the right course of action.

1

Speaker 1

19:52

A couple last couple of years, I've sort of heard a lot about the sort of term resilience, right? And how the brain the brain sort of deals with responses to action. So is it possible that the effects of all this sort of disruptions to daily life and education brought on by like the COVID-19? could just sort of just wash out over time? And do we really need to be worried?

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Speaker 2

20:17

Yeah, I the answer that question is I just don't know, we don't we don't have the evidence. So it's impossible to say, one. So I can I can put it in terms of questions, like one question I would have, and I think would be quite interesting to research is our tolerance of uncertainty. I would say anecdotally that my employees know, our, our tolerance of uncertainty is improved has increased over the last six months, six months ago, I was intolerant of uncertainty. I like to plan everything and be certain of everything that I was planning. Now, I, you know, we've learned that that's actually impossible. Right now, you can't plan anything with any kind of certainty, because we just don't know what things will be like, we don't know what the rules, what rules will be in place in next week, let alone next month or next year. And I think we we have had to become resilient to that level of uncertainty. That's a really interesting phenomenon. I don't know whether there's any actual evidence that as a society, we're becoming more resistant to uncertainty and able to live with it. But I think that's that's a really interesting question. I think I think, you know, your question is really, are there any sort of positives that might come out of this traumatic societal life experience? It's a question that really needs to be researched.

1

Speaker 1

21:32

Social media, obviously, we've all been online a lot more. Is that a good or a bad thing for young people?



21:40

So when?

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Speaker 2

21:42

When Amy Orban and Livia, Tamara and I were writing a review on the effects of social isolation, social deprivation. in adolescence, because of the lockdown. We Aimee Orban is a world expert, a world expert on the effects of social media on well being and adolescence. She's really interested in the kind of nuances of that question. And she, her research involves looking at things like the content of social media, the duration, young people are using it, and how they're using it, whether they're just passively scrolling through other people's news feeds, or whether they're actively engaged in social interaction. And all of those things play a role in determining the effects on well being and young people. Anyway, we, we thought, when we were worried about the effects of lockdown on young people's social development, we thought, well, one potentially mitigating factor is the access to social media. So the ability to connect socially online, which, you know, imagine if COVID happened 20 or 30 years ago, when there was no internet and there was no social media, the only way of connecting with friends would have been on a landline phone so much, much harder and a completely different experience. At least now young people have been able to and are able to connect socially on their phones. I think our hypothesis would be that that is generally a positive thing, because it might mitigate the damaging effects of not being able to engage in face to face social interaction with their friends. On the other hand, there are lots of other questions, we know that there are some harmful sides of screentime that depending on the content you're looking at, we've heard about that recently, with various scare stories about Tick Tock and other other social media. I worry about things like eyesight, I think my eyesight has deteriorated over the last six months, even more, even more so than I have terrible eyesight to begin with. But because I've been, you know, staring at a computer screen for 10 hours a day, for the past six months, and I and I worry about eyes, eyes and development, developing eyes and the effects of constantly looking at a screen will have an eye side. But overall, I think that the fact that we live in an age where we are able to connect socially online has probably mitigated a lot of potentially really, really harmful effects of, of this lockdown and working from home.

1

Speaker 1

24:20

So I just wanted to sort of say thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I'm really grateful. It's it's fascinating to think about the teenage brain how you know what's gonna happen over the next year ahead, because the last six months have been crazy for teenagers already. So



24:37

thank you so much for taking the time to do it.

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Speaker 1

24:40

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We Are The University
Welcome to We are the University, a podcast which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.
Welcome to We are the University, a podcast which opens a window on to the people that make Cambridge University unique. Students, archivists, professors, alumni: all have a story to share.

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