Inside the Teenage Brain
Program #2011
Original airdate: January 31, 2002

Written, Produced and Directed by
Sarah Spinks

    Dr. JAY GIEDD, National Institute of Mental Health: -five, four, three, two, one-

    Dr. CHARLES NELSON, University of Minnesota: I think the problem parents have is that once their kid becomes a teenager, for a brief period of time, it's as though they've been invaded by another body.

    CHARLIE: They need to learn how to relate to being a kid. I think they forgot.

    Dr. JAY GIEDD: We now know that there's a lot of dynamic activity. In many ways, it's the most tumultuous time of brain development since coming out of the womb.

    BRITTANY: I swear to God, I'm never talking to any of your friends again! I'll never talk to you again! I swear to God!

    BRANDON: No. You don't have to- did I say anything? Did I say no you couldn't sit here?

    Dr. CHARLES NELSON: Those cells and connections that are used will survive and flourish. Those cells and connections that are not used will wither and die.

    Dr. MARY CARSKADON, Brown University: With all of the things that teenagers have available to them, their sleep has been shoved into an ever- narrowing window.

    NIKKI: Living a teenage life today is completely different from before. I know it's very stressful on adults, but they're going to have to realize that it's today's world. That's how it is.

    NARRATOR: Tonight, FRONTLINE takes you Inside the Teenage Brain.



NARRATOR: The sun is up. And inside the O'Donnells' house, they are trying to get Charlie up.

    PAM O'DONNELL, Charlie's Mother: Charles! Charles?

    CHARLIE: What!

NARRATOR: Pam tries.

    PAM O'DONNELL: Come on!

    CHARLIE: No!

NARRATOR: And then Charles, senior.

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr., Charlie's Father: Charles, time to get up.

    CHARLIE: No! Leave me alone!

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: All right. Well-

    CHARLIE: Get out! I want to sleep!

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: All right. Well, time to get up. I'll give you 10 minutes.

PAM O'DONNELL: By the time he gets up in the morning to the time he walks out the door, there's a matter of, like, 11 minutes maximum. So he's a procrastinator. You know, he'll just stay in bed.

NARRATOR: They happen to live in East Providence, Rhode Island, but parents everywhere will recognize the look and the pacing. It's a school day, and there's a teenager to get out of bed.

CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: We have to remind him, "Do your hair. Get your books. Take your backpack. Have your key for the house." It's a normal routine type of thing.

    PAM O'DONNELL: Did you study?

    CHARLIE: No. How do you study math?

    PAM O'DONNELL: Practice.

    CHARLIE: The bacon is a little burned.

    PAM O'DONNELL: Yeah. I'm sorry about that.

Well, he's a very friendly person. He's very outgoing. He's very well-liked outside the house. It's almost like he's a different kid than he is at home because they don't get the that attitude we get.

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: Well, two more days, you're all done. School's out.

    CHARLIE: Uh-huh. One more.

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: How come you don't have to go to school on Friday?

    CHARLIE: Because that's when the unofficial report cards are distributed.

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: Well, maybe it'd be a good idea for you to go into school.

    CHARLIE: No! They're mailing it! Why bother going in and getting out at 10:30? I don't have to go in.

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: We'll see.

Pam and I are trying to make sure that Charlie does well in high school so that he doesn't unknowingly close some doors on himself for future opportunities.

    It was nice of your mother to cook breakfast for you this morning. Did you say thank you?

    CHARLIE: Yes I did, Dad.

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: That's good.

    CHARLIE: Did I? No?

    PAM O'DONNELL: No, you didn't. You're welcome.

    CHARLIE: Can I have another drink of orange juice?

NARRATOR: If parents often wonder what is going on inside the teenage brain, tonight some answers, perhaps more than most parents expect.

Here at the University of Minnesota, this $2 million dollar machine is revealing the secrets of another 15-year-old boy to his father. While Colin Nelson lies calmly, a scanning machine - a magnetic resonance imager - will open a window into his brain.

The details are there, but what does this picture mean about mood, learning, memory?

Dr. CHARLES NELSON, University of Minnesota: So he has a good hippocampus. How come he doesn't remember to take out the garbage in the morning?

    I wonder if he's awake? The first time we scanned him, when he was about 9, he- with all that noise, he fell asleep.

NARRATOR: Charles Nelson is a neuroscientist and child psychologist at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON: Teenagers have- particularly when they're first becoming teenagers, have every reason to believe and to feel that no one understands them, that they themselves are sometimes surprised at what flies out of their mouth. And a personal example is when my son was 12, he one day just blurted something out and then grinned. And he thought- he thought out loud, "Where did that come from?"

NARRATOR: His father is trying to answer this question. Slowly, a picture is emerging of the brain of a boy- not yet an adult, not quite a child.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON: So we can correlate it with real life. And if we show activation in the hippocampus, the question would be, why is it that in this particular case of Colin, why he doesn't remember to bring his books home from school?

I think the problem parents have is, they- no matter how well they think they know their kid, once their kid becomes a teenager, for a brief period of time it's as though they've been invaded by another body or another brain. And suddenly, they don't quite know that kid anymore, and they get thrown off balance.

CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: We're bending. It's a give-and-take situation.

CHARLIE: Well, still- like, they're only about like that. [gesturing] They still got, like, that much more to go.

PAM O'DONNELL: It takes a lot to let go.

CHARLIE: Not for me. You got to be cool.

PAM O'DONNELL: Well, for me it does.

CHARLIE: You got to be relaxed!

PAM O'DONNELL: I am cool. There's nobody cooler than me, let me tell you. It just takes a lot, you know? I've- we've raised you to the best of our ability. You may think that we're paranoid or we're uncool or we're too strict-

CHARLIE: All of the above.

PAM O'DONNELL: Well, that's what works for us, we feel.

CHARLIE: But you're not the kid! You don't have to abide by your own rules. You-

PAM O'DONNELL: I have to abide by his rules.

NARRATOR: In an artist's studio in Cincinnati, Jim Borgman is capturing the flashpoints of life with teens. A Pulitzer Prize winner, Borgman developed the popular Zits cartoon with artist Jerry Scott. Now syndicated in 900 newspapers, Jeremy and his comic strip family are familiar to parents everywhere.

JIM BORGMAN, Cartoonist: Ninety percent of the letters we get fall into one wonderful category, which are, "You must have a camera in our house," or you know, "This is my son exactly. I can't believe it. How are you doing this?" Jeremy is 15 years old. He can't drive. He's still stuck within the orbit of his parents' rules, and they are still a much bigger factor in his life than he would like. And so there's that moment before he can get out of the house and drive off on his own when there is the maximum tension in the house.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON: Many parents are thrown for a loop when their kids get to be an adolescent, in some respects. And what I think they need to do is recognize that this is just another phase of child development, and even though their children may be shouting more and talking back more and kicking and- and throwing temper tantrums, it's just a temper tantrum in a 5-foot-tall body instead of an 18-inch-long body.

NARRATOR: And Nelson knows. He's an expert on little babies. This one, Natalie Aune, can already recognize her mother's voice, and she's just a week old. By measuring small brain waves, researchers at Nelson's lab at the University of Minnesota can show how babies are learning quickly, taking in data from the vivid world around them. That period of dramatic growth in Natalie's brain will happen once again just before she becomes a teenager.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON: I think the transition into puberty is analogous to the transition to being a baby, in many respects, that a child suddenly is undergoing fairly substantial changes in their brain development at a very, very rapid pace. And that period of time often, that lasts only a year or two, is a time where we really need to pay very close attention to what's happening to our kids.

NARRATOR: But paying attention to a teenager brings a different set of challenges.

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: We have rules that you have to follow while you're in the house, like it or not.

    CHARLIE: Did you like your father's rules?

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: Probably not.

    CHARLIE: You don't remember it? "Probably"?

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: I still have a good relationship with my father, Charlie.

    CHARLIE: Yeah, but did you like his rules?

    CHARLES O'DONNELL, Sr.: I would assume he had rules that I didn't care for. But while I was living in the house, I had to abide by the rules. And I feel, you know-

    CHARLIE: Did you want to move out of there as soon as possible because of those rules?


CHARLIE: They need to learn how to relate to being a kid. I think they forgot. Stuff like that. Let us make our own mistakes.

NARRATOR: Fifteen years old, a teenager with wheels that are too small, with ambitions to drive, to fly in a larger world.

Late at night, Dr. Jay Giedd heads to work. He, too, is grappling with the teenage world, trying to untangle the workings and wirings of the adolescent brain. This doctor is crossing over a new threshold to a fresh understanding of adolescence.

Dr. JAY GIEDD, National Institute of Mental Health: I think people for generations have been fascinated by teen behavior and what is happening in teens. But for so long, to actually look inside the biology of teen behavior has been very elusive. And we just haven't had the technology or the tools to try to peer into the so-called "black box."

NARRATOR: But now he does. Dr. Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health gets the use of this imaging machine one night a week to look at the brain structure of normal children. Teens come in and sometimes even sleep in this large magnet so he can take a long hard, look inside their brains.

Dr. JAY GIEDD: Now, for the first time in our human history, we can actually start exploring the living, growing, activity of the human brain.

    Five, four, three, two, one, blast off.

NARRATOR: What he discovered in the all-important part of the brain that sits behind the forehead, in an area called the frontal cortex, was an unexpected growth spurt, an overproduction of cells just before puberty.

Dr. JAY GIEDD: This is a process that we knew happened in the womb, maybe even the first 18 months of life. But it was only when we started following the same children by scanning their brains at two-year intervals that we detected a second wave of over-production. And this second wave of over-production is manifest by an actual thickening in the gray matter or the thinking part in the front parts of the brain.

[ Read the full interview]

Dr. CHARLES NELSON, University of Minnesota: Many people mistakenly believed that most of the changes occurred in the first few years of life, and then after a child was about 3, there was actually relatively little change occurring. And we know now that's absolutely incorrect

Dr. JAY GIEDD: Well, I think the most surprising thing has been how much the teen brain is changing. By age 6, the brain's already 95 percent of its adult size. But the gray matter or thinking part of the brain continues to thicken throughout childhood as the brain cells grow extra connections, much like a tree growing extra branches, twigs and roots.

NARRATOR: It's like this. The brain grows like a tree. First there is a flurry of growth. Then unused branches or pathways are pruned. And it is this pruning that gives the tree its shape for the future.

    CHARLIE'S UNCLE: I'll hold this in position because it has to have a little bit of an angle. You want to tighten this clamp. [unintelligible] with your fingers first.

NARRATOR: For Charlie, as he works in his uncle's garage, the skills he's acquiring will strengthen certain neural pathways. What he practices will combine with his own genetic heritage to consolidate the wiring in certain parts of his brain and not others.

    CHARLIE'S UNCLE: The last thing we want to do is give this thing a little wiggle and-

    CHARLIE: Want me to hold it right there?

    CHARLIE'S UNCLE: Yes, right there is perfect.

Dr. JAY GIEDD: The pruning-down phase is perhaps even more interesting because our leading hypothesis for that is the "Use it or lose it" principle. Those cells and connections that are used will survive and flourish. Those cells and connections that are not used will wither and die. So if the teen is doing music or sports or academics, those are the cells and connections that will be hard-wired.

If they're lying on the couch or playing video games or MTV, those are the cells and connections that are going to survive.

NARRATOR: It is not only what a teenager does that matters, but how old he is and what the immature brain is capable of doing. Some areas co-ordinate and oversee others. And it those parts of the brain that have long interested neuroscientists.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON: We've known for a long time that what we actually call the pre-frontal cortex, the part that sits behind your forehead, is involved in planning behavior, your use of strategies, a technical term we call cognitive flexibility, which is can you change your mind and do you have sort of a fluid way of going about solving problems?

Dr. JAY GIEDD: The part of the brain that is the so-called CEO or the executive of the brain is still being built during the teenage years. Teens are capable of enormous intellectual and artistic accomplishments. But that basic part of the brain that gives us strategies and organizing and perhaps warns us of potential consequences isn't fully on board yet.

NARRATOR: The risks of a severe concussion or a turned ankle, for instance. An adult brain might call for a helmet here or suggest this is not quite the moment to take a drag. But when you're very good, very determined and very young, its easy to feel invulnerable.

BOY WITH SKATES: On some occasions, I wear helmets, but not that much. I come here almost every day, so it's not that much for me if I fall because I'm kind of used to it. I just get little scrapes. No, it's not that risky.

NARRATOR: Well, not that risky would be one way to put it.

BOY WITH SKATES: It's one of, like, the most common, either rolling or wrists.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON: Adolescence has always been a period of high risk. We know that teenagers engage in risky behavior and they have always engaged in risky behavior. There's nothing new about that now. And because the child - the 13 or 14 or 15-year-old - still has an immature frontal cortex, they often do not make the most responsible, reasoned decisions. And by virtue of having things available that can do harm, they often wind up in a higher risk group than I experienced as a child myself.

NARRATOR: The prevalence of drugs, for instance. Here at a rave party, ecstasy and other drugs are a kind of rite of passage.

GIRL AT PARTY: When you're on E, you love everyone. Like, I love you.

BOY AT PARTY: Very similar to San Francisco in 1969.

BOY AT PARTY: The way you feel, like, your hands are soft. You can touch your face. Your skin is very, very soft. People touch you. It's nice.

Dr. JAY GIEDD, National Institute of Mental Health: It's also a particularly cruel irony of nature, I think, that right at this time, when the brain is most vulnerable, is also the time when teens are most likely to experiment with drugs or alcohol. If they're doing drugs or alcohol that evening, it may not just be affecting their brains for that night or even for that weekend but for the next, you know, 80 years of their life.

JIM BORGMAN, Cartoonist: Sullenness, boredom, one-word answers, the misery. You know, it always looks a lot more humorous to us in retrospect.

NARRATOR: At the old carousel in Riverside, Rhode Island, Brittany Husnander and her friend, Leah Crowell, ride around just as they did when they were kids. But now the thrills are elsewhere.

    BRITTANY: So what happened last night? Did you guys, like, kiss or anything?

    LEAH: Nope.

    BRITTANY: Why not?

    LEAH: Because.

    BRITTANY: I said why?

    LEAH: I don't know if I want to.

    BRITTANY: Why not?

    LEAH: I don't know.

    BRITTANY: OK. How come you wouldn't give him an answer, Leah? I want you to go out with him. Why do you make it so complicated?

There's nothing to do in Riverside. It's so boring. We don't- we just walk around. That's all we ever do is, like, walk around or, like- I don't know. We really never do anything. We go to the beach sometimes. Sometimes we go to the mall. Sometimes we go to the movies. But pretty much all we do is sit around and just, like, talk or go in the pool or whatever. It's boring.

NARRATOR: Brittany can change from fed-up teen to focused artist very quickly. She's a good student with many talents and a lot of support from the teen expert in her house, her mother, Beverley [sp?].

BEV HUSNANDER, Brittany's Mother: They're trying to make the best way they can. They're trying to put the pieces together the best way they know how. And on top of it all, they're going through this hormone thing and peer pressure and all this other stuff.

NARRATOR: Bev is sympathetic to the ups and downs of teenage life. She is easy about Brittany's swings in mood, able to tolerate a lot of teenage angst.

    BEV HUSNANDER: Now she's aggravated. Can't do nothing right these last few days. I wonder whose fault that is.

God bless the guy who's willing to take her on because he's going to have to be a very open and comfortable person with females, rather than being intimidated by them.

NARRATOR: Brittany's not going to be intimidated by her brother, Brandon.

    BRITTANY: All right! You're not going to deny that they fought with me, too. So why aren't you mad at them? That's why I get mad at Leah! I don't get mad at you because Leah always sits in your room with you and follows you guys and talks to you guys! I don't get mad at you, I get mad at Leah! So why are you mad at me? Get mad at your friends! Tell your friends to stay the f--k away from me!

    BRANDON: Did I say anything? Did I say, "No, you couldn't come and sit here"?

    BRITTANY: I swear to God, I'm never talking to any of your friends again! I'll never talk to you again! I swear to God!

    BRANDON: You don't have to stop talking to us! You can talk! But don't-

    BRITTANY: Am I not supposed to live in my own house? They're here more than I am!

    BRANDON: You live on Mike!

    BRITTANY: I swear to God, I'll be, like, "Mike, you need to move. I live here, and there's no other seats on the couch, so I need to lay down. Get up."

    BRANDON: You don't see me doing it to your friends whenever someone goes, "You want to go to Bucky's?" You don't see me go, "Yeah, I'll go with you! I'll take the walk! Oh, man, let's go!"

    BRITTANY: All right. I'm sorry. I'm sorry! I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

NARRATOR: Bev Husnander remains unperturbed. She knows it could all pass in a moment.

    BRITTANY: Give me a hug! You need to hug me. I hugged you.

    BRANDON: OK, that's good enough!

    BRITTANY: No, give me a hug. Give me a hug. Thank you.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON: We think that the dramatic changes in mood - for example, a child having an outburst at one moment and then being very calm and happy the next - is due in part to changes in hormones because we know that as a child enters puberty, these changes in mood are much more dramatic. And a year or two after puberty has begun, things level down a little bit.

But we think the ultimate responsibility for regulating these mood changes resides in the frontal cortex, and that's what's overseeing this whole operation.

NARRATOR: Jim Borgman, a parent himself, recalls his own teenage mood swings with great clarity.

JIM BORGMAN: Remembering those years and how they felt and how insecure we were and how vulnerable we felt, and sadness and the loneliness and the confusion and the isolation. The strip is intended to be funny, and I hope it is, but there has to always be that underlying layer of, you know, the sudden touch you have as a teenager with the deep well of human experience.

NARRATOR: Nicole Ellis often feels vulnerable, but today the picture she's trying to portray is of the self-assured Nicole, the one who is running for student council at a Toronto high school.

    NIKKI: I've been attending this school for the past years and noticed the lack of interest taken to make the school more exciting. That's why I am running for social convenor. One of the things I'd like to bring back to you is our school dance.

NARRATOR: Today the students will give her a vote of confidence.

    NIKKI: It's your school. Embrace it. Thank You.

NARRATOR: But for a teenager, confidence is something clutched at, seldom held.

NIKKI: One hour, I could be really happy and laughing, and the next hour I'm just really, really upset. Then it could be one whole day I'm fine. Then two days later, I'm just mad.

NARRATOR: Nikki lives with her mother and two brothers. Her mother, Gayle, knows the turbulence of the teenage years.

GAYLE JARVIS, Nikki's Mother: I know her moods. I know when something is bothering her. I know when she feels she doesn't want to talk. And I know when it is the time to just leave her alone, and I also know when there's a time to find out and find out what's bothering her ASAP. I sort of have to feel her out.

NIKKI: Sometimes I just don't feel like talking, period, and she knows. She knows that, so-

GAYLE JARVIS: I know that, like, are you feeling angry inside, confused, what? And that's what she wants-

NIKKI: I don't even know. Sometimes I don't know

GAYLE JARVIS: Sometimes she doesn't know what she feels.

NIKKI: Sometimes I don't even know why I'm upset, I'm just upset.

GAYLE JARVIS: She comes to me sometimes, she says, "Mom, I feel like crying." So I sit down, put my arms around her, let her cry.

Dr. CHARLES NELSON, University of Minnesota: The recent work on brain development, in my mind, enormously helps explain things that we've known for some time in child development. So people who've studied adolescence for many years have pointed to these changes in behavior that we've been describing, these changes in mood and fluctuations in mood and the like, without quite being able to pinpoint what was responsible for those changes. And now I think we have a much better handle on that.

And I think my argument would be that it's the changes going on in the frontal cortex that gradually give the child the ability to regulate those powerful emotions, to solve problems more effectively, to be more planful in their behavior. So what's really new here is our ability to explain the child development work that we've known about for quite some time.

JIM BORGMAN, Cartoonist: I find that the quickest way to get shut out is to ask questions about things that you're not welcome to know or to share. So for me, as a parent, it has always been more a matter of waiting for the oyster to open and being present when it does.

NARRATOR: Dr. Deborah Yurgelun-Todd and her associate, Staci Gruber, are scanning the brains of teenagers to see how they read emotion. The small but intriguing study at McLean Hospital near Boston is mapping differences between the brains of adults and teens.

Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD, McLean Hospital: I came to this research with the assumption that the teenager was going to look a lot like an adult. In fact, I assumed that the 13-year-old brain would respond quite similarly to the adult brain, in terms of the kinds of tasks that we were asking them to do when they were in the magnet.

NARRATOR: To explore this, Todd put teenage and adult volunteers through an MRI and monitored how their brains responded to a series of pictures. The volunteers were asked to discern the emotion on these faces. The results were surprising.

Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD: One of the interesting things about the findings are that they suggest that the teenagers are not able to correctly read all the feelings in the adult face.

NARRATOR: All the adults identified this emotion as fear, but the teenagers invariably saw something different.

    Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD: Patrick, how're you doing?

    PATRICK: Good.

    Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD: Tell me about those faces? What were those faces feeling?

    PATRICK: A lot of them are shocked or angry and- I think that was it.

    Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD: OK, shocked and angry.

    PATRICK: Yeah.


[ A summary of research on emotion]

Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD: They see anger when there isn't anger or sadness when there isn't sadness. And if that's the case, then, clearly, their own behavior is not going to match that of the adult. So you'll see a miscommunication both in terms of what they think the adult is feeling, but also and then what the response should be to that.

NARRATOR: The reason for this, she believes, is that teenagers use a different part of the brain to assess the emotion on people's faces.

Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD: This is a really nice picture, highlighting the fact that in an adolescent brain, the relative activation of the pre-frontal region or this anterior front part of the brain, is less than it is in the adults. But in contrast to that, the more emotional region or that gut response region has more activation compared to the adult. So that the relationship between these two regions is very different. And we think that that's been a very important finding in terms of understanding adolescent behavior.

NARRATOR: At Nikki Ellis's high school, students often feel that they are the ones who are misunderstood, not the other way around- with some exceptions.

    PATRICK KNIGHT: When you're looking on the border and see you as central, how does your family factor into your life? I would like a picture of you. No I don't want a mug shot. I want a picture, OK?

NARRATOR: Patrick Knight is a popular teacher, often acting as a bridge between the students and adults. We asked Knight to gather a group of his students to find out what's on their minds.

    PATRICK KNIGHT: What's a stereotype that's placed on teenagers' shoulders that bothers you?

    TYLER: That no matter what they're doing, they're always causing trouble. Everything they do will end up causing trouble in some way.

    PATRICK KNIGHT: Young and stupid.

    TYLER: Yeah.

    NIKKI: Just that they think we're all liars. Yeah, I think- like, not even that we're liars. It's people, a lot of them, adults think we're dumb, that we don't know any- [crosstalk] No, but not even that. Remember, you can be just walking- I've been standing beside adults- I've stood beside adults, and there could be just a girl or a guy walking. They don't look any way. The guy doesn't have to be- he doesn't have on no bandanas or nothing. And they'll just, "Oh, look at them. I don't know why teens love to walk the street."

    WILL: My dad thinks that, like, I drink and I cause trouble. And he thinks I'm always looking for ruckus and stuff. That's not true.

    TAMARA: The funniest thing, though, is just, like, that they think we're dumb and that we're whatever. And then some of these people that have that attitude, and they've even said stuff to me and some other people, they are the biggest hypocrites I've ever seen!

    TEENS: Yeah! Yeah!

    TAMARA: I was just, like, "OK," like, "Be quiet." You know, like, "Look at yourself and then fix yourself up before you judge me."

Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD: The teenager is not going to take the information that is in the outside world and organize it and understand it the same way we do.

    TYLER: I'll just be sitting at home watching TV, and my mom will say, "Did you do that for me?" I'll be, like, "Oops. I forgot. Sorry." "You didn't forget. You chose not to do it."

    TEENS: Yes! Yeah!

    TYLER: "You chose. You decided that you did not want to do that because if you wanted to do it, then you'd have done it right away."

    NIKKI: My mom will- she'll say, "Oh, but you didn't forget to roam street. You didn't forget to go out. You didn't"-

Dr. DEBORAH YURGELUN-TODD, McLean Hospital: In terms of interactions at the dinner table or on the weekend or doing chores or doing homework, it means that whatever communication, whatever conversation you had with them, if you're assuming they understood everything you said, they may not have, or they may have understood it differently.

NARRATOR: The new ways of looking at the brain point scientists like Jay Giedd to a different understanding of how it works.

Dr. JAY GIEDD, National Institute of Mental Health: The cerebellum in the back of the brain is the part of the brain that changes most during the teen years. So this part of the brain has not finished growing well into the early 20s, even.

The cerebellum used to be thought to be involved in the coordination of our muscles. But we now know it's also involved in coordination of our thinking processes. And just like one can be physically clumsy, one can be kind of mentally clumsy. And this ability to smooth out all the different intellectual processes, to navigate the complicated social life of the teen and to get through these things smoothly and gracefully instead of lurching with adolescents seems to be a function of the cerebellum.

As a society, we're less active than we ever have been in the history of humanity. We're good with our thumbs and video games and such, but as far as actual physical activity - running, jumping, playing - children are doing less and less of that. The recess and the play seem to be the first thing that is cut out of school curriculums in tight times. But those actually may be as important or maybe even more important than some of the academic subjects that the children are doing.

CHARLES NELSON, University of Minnesota: Often the hallmark of recognizing that your kid has become a teenager, after they say something like, "I hate you, Dad" or "I hate you, Mom" is that suddenly, they find themselves sleeping until 11:00 in the morning, which they never did before.

NARRATOR: First period is just wrapping up in this 9th-grade English classroom.

    ENGLISH TEACHER: No, we haven't done this, so nobody has this yet. OK, this is the last story.

NARRATOR: The teacher is wide awake, trying to inject a little life into his students.

    ENGLISH TEACHER: Number 12- OK, "prodigious- wonderful, of great size." A lot of people got that mixed up with "poignant." All right, prodigious, if we're going to be technical, OK? Prodigious.

Dr. MARY CARSKADON, Brown University: What you see in the classroom is a sea of sleepy faces and drool on their notebooks, and so forth. When we bring those kids into the laboratory, what we see is a phenomenon that's of a lot of concern for us. They start to look as if they have a major sleep disorder.

NARRATOR: At a sleep lab in Rhode Island, director Mary Carskadon has become a world expert on adolescents and how they sleep. She is disturbed by what her studies show: that most teens are getting an average seven-and-a-half hours a night.

Dr. MARY CARSKADON: When you put that in the context of what they need to be optimally alert, which is nine-and-a-quarter hours of sleep, it's clear that they're building huge, huge sleep debts night after night after night.

With all of the things that teenagers have available to them - from televisions and telephones and computers - their sleep has been shoved into an ever-narrowing window. Fundamentally, the issue is they're not filling up their tank at night, and so they're starting the day with an empty tank.

    PETER KNIGHT: OK, guys, I want to know how many people had a problem this morning getting out of bed. All of you?

    NIKKI: It's hard to get up because sometimes my brother and Mom will come wake me up and, like, it'll take- you know, they'll have to call me, like, 15 times before I actually get up.

Dr. MARY CARSKADON: What's interesting is there's another part of their brain that's the biological timing system, or the circadian clock, that actually helps to prop them up at the end of the day.

NARRATOR: The circadian clock shifts forward as children become teenagers.

    NADIA: I'm so used to staying up so late and everything, I just can't fall asleep.

    CHRIS: Like, 12:00 to, like, 1:00, sometimes 2:00.

    PETER KNIGHT: Why do you go to bed so late?

    CHRIS: A whole bunch of- I can't sleep most of the time.

Dr. MARY CARSKADON: When they start the day with the empty tank and there's no biological clock helping them in the morning, they really should be home in bed sleeping, not sleeping in the classroom.

CHARLIE: I'm not a morning person at all, not at all. Like, when I get on the bus, I don't even remember what happens at home. It's just like, blah, like, just- it's all big blur. And so, like, when they say I'm grounded when I get home, I don't remember what I did in the morning.

Dr. MARY CARSKADON: The teenagers are really put in a kind of a gray cloud when they aren't having enough sleep. It affects both their mood and their ability to think and their ability to perform and react appropriately.

NARRATOR: Professor Carlyle Smith at Trent University in Canada specializes in sleep and learning. We asked Dr. Smith to run both Nicole and Charlie through a series of sleep studies. Both teens will perform certain tasks, go to sleep for the night and come back three days later to repeat them. It doesn't matter what skills they have coming into the test. It will simply measure - under various amounts of sleep - whether they will improve their skills.

The exercises are designed to get the brain learning something new. This test is a real brain teaser. It's like learning an equation in math. Not only does Charlie have to trace something upside down, he must visualize the task in his brain and work from that picture.

Dr. CARLYLE SMITH, Trent University, Ontario: The special worry with teenagers is that they are learning a tremendous amount and trying to keep up with their peers, and so on. They're often stretching almost to the limit of what they can do. And sleeping in is one of the best ways that they can do to sort of stay abreast of what's going on. And let them do it.

[ More on sleep and learning]

    CHARLIE: Yeah, who makes the beds.


    CHARLIE: Can you make mine again?

    SLEEP LAB STAFFER: Yeah, I'll make it up for you. Did you mess it up?

    CHARLIE: No, it was just from everybody being in it.

    SLEEP LAB STAFFER: Yeah, I'll make it nice for you.

    CHARLIE: All right. Hospital corners?


    CHARLIE: No?

    SLEEP LAB STAFFER: I'll give you lab corners.

NARRATOR: It would seem hard to go to sleep this way, but Jeremy Jacob needs to measure exactly what stage of sleep Nikki is in. He's particularly interested in REM - rapid eye movement - the time of dreaming and learning.

The same part of the brain that was working when the teens were learning their new skills continues to rehearse and practice when the students sleep. The brain consolidates and improves on what they have just learned. In a sense, the lessons are effortless, happening while they sleep.

Dr. CARLYLE SMITH: The best predictor of how well someone is going to do, be they at Harvard or wherever, is not their SAT scores or anything else, it's whether or not they got a good night's sleep.

NARRATOR: Three days later, the teens are back.

    Dr. CARLYLE SMITH: Charlie and Nicole, one of you got a normal night of sleep almost. What normally happens is you start out with what's called a little "stage one," then you go to two, three, four. Nicole, she got a 105 minutes of REM sleep. That's quite a bit. Charlie, on the other hand, you only got 44 minutes. You got less than half of what she got. So you're a little short on REM sleep. And as it turns out, that's going to be pretty important as to what happened to your tests.

NARRATOR: Smith had purposely arranged for Charlie to have less sleep. Now, after re-testing the two students, the evidence is clear about how important sleep is to learning.

    Dr. CARLYLE SMITH: You improved by 6 percent on the ball and cup.

    CHARLIE: I improved?

    Dr. CARLYLE SMITH: You improved by 6 percent.

    CHARLIE: I thought I did crappy.

    Dr. CARLYLE SMITH: No, you improved by 6 percent. But Nicole improved 11 percent. We're looking at your degree of improvement. In terms of improvement, you didn't improve as much as Nicole did. So she was over double what you had.

    Now then, the mirror trace. This we think requires REM sleep. Nicole, who got lots of REM sleep, she improved 44 percent. And you, Charlie, you were worse by 10 percent.

    I can't tell you any more clearly. Having a good night's sleep will give you more of an advantage than anything else than you can do. Now, you can re-learn this stuff, but you're going to run out of time. Every day you say, "Well, I'll catch up." But while you're catching up, Nicole is busy going ahead. Yeah, I think maybe you should go to bed now!

NARRATOR: In response to the studies that show many teenagers are sleep- deprived, a number of school districts across the country have changed their school start times. In Minneapolis, high schools start over an hour later than they did five years ago. Trevor Nelson notices a big change in first period class.

TREVOR: A lot of kids are talking, awake, you know, smiling. It's a lot more alert than it was in middle school.

KYLA WALHSTROM, University of Minnesota: What we found as a result of the later start time is that students were attending classes. They were more alert in class. They're reporting themselves being more alert. They're staying with the discussion, with the teacher. They're raising their hand. They're being engaged as learners instead of struggling just to stay awake and- or passively sitting there.

NARRATOR: Wahlstrom's recent report on the Minneapolis school experiment meant attendance was up. But there was a down side, particularly for middle school students, who now start two hours later.

SARAH VAN DER WERF, Math Teacher: I think it's really hurt after-school programs. Occasionally, I leave school at 4:30, and I'll see students leaving the building and then- at middle schools. And I think, "You have no time to go have any kind of after-school activities, including tutoring or sports or anything before you need to be home and having dinner with your families," which is an important time, as well.

And I- you know, there's- for every study that says kids do better with late start times academically, there's studies that say kids do better when they're involved in activities and sports and choirs and drama and all those things. And so I think it's limited the amount of kids that can be involved in that kind of stuff.

NARRATOR: It's not only after-school activities that are affected when school districts change their start times. Bus schedules, child care- everything changes when the school start time shifts. Even in Rhode Island, where much of the ground-breaking sleep research was done, later school start times have met resistance.

Dr. MARY CARSKADON, Brown University: There have been some other districts where it's just sort of blown up in the face of the schools when they've tried to delay. The school is really the heart of the community and the heart of these families, and if you do it without any warning- you know, parents have structured day care and child care for the little ones being provided by the older ones. And I mean, it just can get out of control.

NARRATOR: Applying new science to public policy has always been tricky, and nowhere more so than in areas that affect children. Take, for instance, the debate over what science has said about early childhood.

Parents used to be told that mobiles, Mozart and lots of stimulation would make their babies smarter. If they didn't do it early, there wouldn't be a second chance. We now know that simply isn't true.

JOHN BRUER, Author, "The Myth of the First Three Years": Brain science has told us very little about what we can do to raise our children and raise our children better.

NARRATOR: John Bruer is the author of a book, The Myth of the First Three Years.

JOHN BRUER: What we really have to be careful of here is if we're talking about how fast 3-year-olds learn or what kind of moral decisions teenagers could make, the relationships between the behaviors and the desired behaviors and the brain structure is totally unknown. So these- this simple, popular newsweekly magazine idea that adolescents are difficult because their frontal lobes aren't mature is one we should be very cautious of.

NARRATOR: Even Dr. Jay Giedd, who seems to have penetrated deep inside the teenage brain, wonders about the kind of lessons parents can draw from his science.

Dr. JAY GIEDD, National Institute of Mental Health: The more technical and more advanced the science becomes, often the more it leads us back to some very basic tenets. And sometimes it's even disappointing to people that, with all of the science and with all the advances, the best advice we can give is things that our grandmother could have told us generations ago- to spend loving, quality time with our children.

ELLEN GALINSKY, Families and Work Institute: So often, what happens in the United States is that we're on a pendulum. We go from saying "This is good" to "This is bad," and then we say what was bad becomes good.

NARRATOR: Ellen Galinsky is a social scientist and the president of the Families and Work Institute. She has seen scientific fads come and go, but she says her research for a book about children shows there are enduring lessons for parents.

ELLEN GALINSKY: Even though the public perception is about building bigger and better brains, what the research shows is that it's the relationships. It's the connections, it's the people in children's lives who make the biggest difference.

    TEENAGE BOY: A lot of times older kids, they seem to break away from their parents a little bit. It's like a feeling of freedom or something. And then they find that when they get into a problem, they want their parents' help, but they don't want to, you know, outright ask their parents.

    TEENAGE GIRL: You'd really like them just to step in and say, "Hey, you know, you don't seem too, you know, happy today. Is everything OK? Because sometimes, I don't know, I'll have trouble asking- you know, expressing my feelings if someone doesn't come up and ask first.

ELLEN GALINSKY: It's a surprise to me and it's a surprise to every group of parents or teachers with whom I speak, is that kids are actually yearning, teens are yearning for more time with their parents.

NIKKI: From since I was younger, she was always there for me. Whenever anything happened, it's her. She's there. Anything went down, you know, when I'm feeling sad, whatever, it doesn't matter when it is, she's the type of person who always makes sure you're fine.

NARRATOR: Gayle Jarvis works two jobs. Every afternoon she heads out for the evening shift, leaving three kids behind. Yet even though Gayle has to spend a great deal of time away from her children, they feel her presence.

NIKKI: She's, like, always calling from work. I mean, she works till, like- you've been to my house. You've heard how much my mom calls.

CLASSMATE: Her mom calls her just for not eating food today and she-

NIKKI: OK, my mom, she's the way that she has to make sure that when we get up, you know, when we come home, she finds out how was our day. As soon as we come, like, she knows the time we come home. "Ring, ring, ring!"

    I bet you it's Mom. I bet you.


    NIKKI: Hello? Hi, Mom!

    GAYLE JARVIS: What's up?

    NIKKI: What'd I say?

    GAYLE JARVIS: Did Rodney come?

    NIKKI: Yeah, but he have to leave early. He said he had to go straight to work, so he said sorry.

    GAYLE JARVIS: Let me speak to [unintelligible]

    NIKKI: Hold on.

    TEENAGER: Hi, Mom.

    GAYLE JARVIS: How're you doing?

    TEENAGER: How're you?

    GAYLE JARVIS: What's up?

    TEENAGER: Nothing.

GAYLE JARVIS: You have to be careful with kids. It's the time when you push them off, that's the time when they really need to be heard. So you have to be very, very careful because it's easy to say, "OK, call me later, and maybe, you know, we'll talk later," but then later might be a couple of minutes too late. So you don't take that chance.

    BRITTANY: I hate that, how everyone just- was that how it was when you were younger?

NARRATOR: Bev Husnander spends a lot of time listening to what's on the minds of her kids. Here she lets us set up a camera to observe a typical evening with Brittany and her friend, Leah.

    BRITTANY: He's been suspended, like, a hundred times. So he finally quit school because she got- he was never in school anyways because she was suspended so many times.

    BEV HUSNANDER: For what reason?

    BRITTANY: She went to class, like normal. She was just a little out of it.

    LEAH: She just couldn't walk. And then she passed out next to the toilet.

    BRITTANY: So they just won't listen to us, no matter how hard we try. So we have to suck it up and-

    LEAH: The name of my six-page was "How to help our children in this me-first culture." Whatever that means.

BEV HUSNANDER: I just want it to be open. I wanted them to be able to talk back to me about anything and not feel that they were going to be reprimanded or thought foolish or insignificant or they didn't know what they were talking about because they were children or because they were kids. I think kids are a lot smarter and a lot in tuned to what's going on than their parents ever give them credit for.

GAYLE JARVIS: Growing up, one of the things I hated, or even when I was an adult in certain situations, I hated that feeling of when I got home, I know there was going to be something that was going to upset the apple cart and that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach. And I don't ever want them to have that.

NARRATOR: Charlie O'Donnell regards his mom as a good sport, but he's still continuously battling for more independence.

CHARLIE: I'm going to go to the Air Force after high school, and then I'll get my college paid for and then go to college, IT doesn't really matter where. I just want to get out of the house. I want to live in a dorm. No parents' rules. I'd have to set them for myself.

JIM BORGMAN, Cartoonist: Separation is the whole job of teenagers. And as parents, what we would say we want, what we truly want in our hearts, is to launch them into rich, independent, textured lives of their own. And so in the teenage years, here we get it, and it doesn't always feel the way we thought it would.

I have a friend who says that teenagers plant their feet firmly on your chest and launch themselves off into their own life. And that's just how it feels usually.

ELLEN GALINSKY, Families and Work Institute: So I went back and I asked teens. And they said, "Well, yeah, we are pushing our parents away because it's really hard for us to come out and say `I need you.' " It makes them feel young or- you know, they want us to be mind readers. OK, well, we can't be mind readers. But what they said is, "Hang in there. If we push you away, yeah, we still want you, so hang in there."

When you ask children whom they admire, they often talk about their parents. If they have a good relationship, they talk about their parents.

[ Read information for parents]

BRITTANY: I tell my mom mostly everything. Like, I don't tell her guy things, but, like, I tell her mostly everything, like, about my friends and everything. I trust my mom with everything.

TYLER: I admire my mom because she has been raising me and my sister by herself. And she's- if you know me and my sister, you know that she's done a good job.

NIKKI: I think you can put more trust in your mom than you can in anybody else. I have no shame in saying I love my mom. My mom can be clear down the hall, and I'll go, "Hi, Mom! I love you!" just like that.

Inside the Teenage Brain

Written, Produced and Directed by

Senior Producer

Director of Photography

Sound Recording


Additional Editing

Chief Researcher

Production Managers

Sound Mix

Online Editor
Michael H. Amundson

Post Production Services


Additional Footage

Special Thanks to


Tim Mangini

M.G. Rabinow

Steve Audette

Michael H. Amundson
John MacGibbon

Patricia Giles

David McMahon

Mason Daring
Martin Brody

Erin Martin Kane

Christopher Kelly

Jessica Smith

Jenna Lowe

Mary Sullivan

Lisa Palone-Clarke

Adrienne Armor

Douglas D. Milton

Tobee Phipps

Todd Goldstein

Sarah Moughty
Kimberly Tabor

Stephanie Ault

Sam Bailey

Wen Stephenson

Catherine Wright

Robin Parmelee

Ken Dornstein

Karen O'Connor

Sharon Tiller

Michael Sullivan

Marrie Campbell

Jim Bracciale

Louis Wiley Jr.

David Fanning

A Spin Free Production
in association with
CTV and Discovery Channel Canada


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ANNOUNCER: This report continues on our Web site, where you'll find summaries of brain and sleep research discussed in the program, with details and pictures of the brain's development and how it affects teens, on-line activities for parents and teens on ways to improve communications skills, a report on the challenges of applying cutting-edge science like this to public policy decisions. And find out here if your local station is re-airing this program and when. Then join the discussion at PBS on line, or write an email to or write to this address. [DEAR FRONTLINE, 125 Western Ave., Boston, MA 02134]

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