Dr. Daniel Siegel assesses the impact of technology on the developing youth brain.

The kidsmediacentre interviewed Dr. Dan Siegel on Skype on June 12, 2014. Unfortunately, the poor quality of the audio and video means we are sharing a transcript of our conversation with him.


 Dr. Dan Siegel

Dr. Dan Siegel

Q: How do you explain the need for some kids to open up their lives and privacy settings online? Despite years of digital literacy discussions, a lot of kids are posting very personal or private feelings and information online. Can you talk about that trend?

A: Yes, I think it’s a very important question. It’s almost like a mental state that that says “I share therefore I am”. People are getting lost in this technology - not just adolescents, but adults too. They’re getting lost and pulling out their smartphone and quickly uploading a photograph of something that just happened instead of just being in the present moment of what happened. Now, that’s different from the urge where you’re saying or revealing private things in a public forum.

I’m concerned the healthy boundaries we need between our private life and public exposure are being dissolved in a way that’s really exposing kids to a lot of very potentially negative things. Not only people finding out your address and seeking you out, but seeing photographs of you doing things when you’re, say, drunk.  

That can lead to serious problems around future employment, because you uploaded it to your social media page. An employer will never want to hire you. And there it is, forever, up there. I don’t think a lot of young people realize that you have different settings in which you live…..public, private, work based settings. Somehow, those just get dissolved and they – youth - don’t think of the negative impact that can happen when they aren’t separated.

 Q:  So with neuro-imaging, we have the technology to peer into the adolescent brain. What are you seeing these days? Do you think today’s technology - the way and the amount of time young people spend using it -  is rewiring the plastic brain?

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A: Well the brain is definitely plastic, meaning it’s shaped by experience. And the formation of the brain is happening throughout the lifespan. But, during childhood, that is, before 12 years of age or so, we’re accumulating these new connections and the brain is remodeling itself from about 12-24 years of age. It’s reshaping itself and that reshaping is definitely happening from experience so if there’s an adolescent that isn’t happy in actual face to face time - and just sending things through the Internet as a form of communication - you can get the brain adapting to that set of experiences. 

What’s important is this is happening instead of in real time – like the conversation we’re having right now, face to face, or as best as we can through a screen. I have to take in your signals and you have to take in mine and we have what is called contingent communication, there isn’t the buffer or extra time of you typing out a text on the phone. You and I have to have real time interactions. So if I were to ask you the question “ What are you thinking right now”, you can’t wait ten minutes. You’re going to have to connect with me if you want to participate, in that kind of give-and-take communication.

My concern is just that with that contingency, we’re having kids spend too much time with a delayed response….where there’s not an actual opportunity for the give-and-take of signals, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Which is very important. Where I have to take you in, and you have to take me in, because communicating – ideally -  goes back and forth. Instead, it’s delayed. You think about it, and although there’s a real value to thinking about things before you respond, there’s also the being in the moment and sharing with someone. And that, I don’t think, is happening as much.

Q: In your book, you talk about teens being biologically driven to be independent and to seek out relationships. Of course, all of that used to happen in relatively private spaces. Now the social imperative is often unfolding in public spaces on the Internet. Can you  discuss that?

A: It’s a challenge because to be vulnerable requires that we open up our inner self to someone we trust; someone whom we’ve taken time to assess and concluded that this person can be my friend, this person has values I share, this person is someone with whom if I confide certain private things, they won’t share it everywhere. And, if there’s a misunderstanding, I can take the time to try and repair that misunderstanding and they can do the same with me. We can have give and take.

When that misunderstanding is in a public setting, the potential humiliation and shame is huge. The perpetuity and proportions by which that misunderstanding can be blown up is significant where maybe you and I could have repaired it before. But now, that person is responding to that person’s response to the response that they thought the person had said and now, it’s completely out of control. 

We’re such social creatures that we keep thinking about how other people are thinking about the thoughts we share. So, it’s just become astronomically more complex and the idea of simply saying, “Hey, I don’t think you understood what I meant. I think the way I said it was kind of confusing and let me try it again”. And then we just do it again. But when 27 people - or in this case, 2700 people have now seen it and responded to it, and it’s on YouTube -  it’s beyond what a simple repair would require. It’s now hugely amplifying misunderstandings. 

Q: How do you think that then impacts the developing identities of teens?

A: Well, when we think about a one-on-one relationship with a good friend, the ability to know your own authentic inner self, to then confide in another person with whom you trust … this is a huge moment in the development of an adolescent.

To go beyond just childhood peers and people you’re friends with, to now having peers that you’re really relying on as a teen as attachment figures, who you feel safe with, that you’re seen with, that you feel soothed by, and that relationship makes you feel secure. Those are the four S’s of attachment. Being seen, being safe, being soothed and being secure. That is something that comes from a one-on-one relationship. You can have more than one good friend with whom you feel attached and that’s great and that’s a part of the transition into adolescence where the development of new relationships come to represent the attachment role.

I think social media can have unbelievably positive affects. However, you also know, as a powerful tool, it can be used in a way that’s understandable but maybe not so helpful.

So, for example, private conversations held in a public forum and youth losing track of the idea of confidences and trusting relationships. The intimacy of good friends is then confused with friends on Facebook. And then private conversations are thought of as private because they’re only going to 100 people. Everyone’s got different emotional interpretations of things, so for misunderstandings to happen when you’re sending out a private thing to 100 people, you can’t really clarify a misunderstanding with 100 people. It’s hard. So that’s what my concern is ….how identity is being diffused and for young people, it can be very confusing. If I can’t get signals from my friend, back, and see if they really get who I am, I’m left guessing. Instead, who I really am gets really distorted through the mass communication that happens.

Q: What are the greatest changes you’re seeing with the way adolescents manage their relationships - specifically online?

A: I think one of the greatest challenges to adolescents and adults about online relationships is that we’re losing the opportunity to really pick up the nonverbal signals that come with face-to-face communication. So, what are they? Eye contact. Very important, even with me now online with you, I know the camera is right there but you’re like down there. Facial expressions, really, really important to picking up communication. The posture that you have, the tone of voice you use, the gestures that you make, the timing, the intensity of your response. Those seven things, eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice, posture, gestures, timing, intensity of response, those seven nonverbal signals are crucial for just taking in the internal state of another so that we can tune into that internal state. Text is not enough. It’s just not enough. So anything we can do to increase the sharing of nonverbal signals will use parts of the brain that is necessary to really feel another person’s feelings. Not just hear their thoughts or words.

Other book and articles by Dr. Daniel Siegel:
Siegel, D. J. (2001). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. NY: Guilford Press.
Siegel, D. J. (2001). Toward an interpersonal neurobiology of the developing mind: Attachment relationships, “mindsight,” and neural integration. Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol. 22(1-2).
Siegel, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain. NY: W. W. Norton, Inc.
Siegel, D. J. and Hartzell, M. M. (2004). Parenting from the inside out: How a deeper self-understanding can help you raise children who thrive. LA: J. P. Tarcher.