The cell phone, the tablet, and the teen brain

Sat, 11/18/2017 - 6:00am

Matt Bellace talks about achieving a “better high.”

In fact, the comedian and neuropsychologist has a book by that name, and he came to the Block Island School to talk to island kids about what, exactly, that means.

Bellace conducted three separate programs — one for the middle school, one for teens, and one for parents. He travels all over the country as a motivational speaker and this wasn’t the first time Bellace has come to Block Island. 

He will be returning Saturday, Nov. 18, to the Community Center. See page 19 for details.

Bellace spoke to the middle school on the subject of how to get a “natural high,” which is also the subject of his book. The focus is on preventing drug use through more positive experiences, and the message is delivered with the humor one would expect of a stand-up comedian and the knowledge that comes with a Ph.D. He says of the kids in the audience: “I know if they’re laughing, they’re listening.”

For the high school students and parents, though, Bellace broached a new topic — that of cell phone use and its impacts on the brain. “The research is new,” said Bellace, adding that much more should be forthcoming in the next few years. 

One thing he has noticed with his own kids is that after a session when they have been enjoying the internet, the immediate reaction when they stop is a period of anger. 

Since the advent of the smart phone in 2007, there have been 10 years to collect data on teen trends. Some of that is positive, and some of that is negative. Not all of these trends can be directly attributed to cell phone and social media use, but some can.

Some of the positives Bellace lists are the speed at which one can access information, the sense of social connection, exposure to new ideas, convenience, and, some people think, a cure for boredom.

One of the key words here is the “sense” of social connection.  Since people interact face-to-face less with each other, they miss out on social cues and the impact their words may have on others. Bellace plays a video of a comedian on the Conan O’Brien show where he demonstrates the difference in telling someone “you’re fat” in person as opposed to telling someone the same thing on social media. The in-person reaction tells the insulter the impact of being mean to another, leading to the reaction of “maybe I shouldn’t have said that.”

One of the negatives is sleep deprivation. Looking at a bright screen right in front of one’s face is far different than say, a television screen across the room. Bellace says the phone stimulates the brain, right before bed, making it harder to fall asleep. 

Chart after chart show sharp changes in behavior post-2007. Teens go out far less, and are less apt to get driver’s licenses. The chart shows that in 1996, 85 percent of teens obtained licenses, but that rate has fallen to about 73 percent. Bellace says that going out is “plummeting,” with teens now going out “less than eighth graders did in 2009.”

Teens are also having fewer babies, but that is a trend that started in the 1990s and so cannot be solely attributed to phone use. Binge drinking has also gone down, something that Bellace attributes to the social embarrassment that can occur if someone videos you when drunk and then posts it for all to see. However, marijuana use is up among teens, and Bellace, not sure actually why that is – or so he says – asks the audience of parents why they think that may be. 

“Is there anything about using the phone that’s made marijuana use go up?” he asks, and then as if answering his own question, says that phone use can cause anxiety and agitation. “The worst news of the day is on your phone every day,” he says. “You can’t relax and enjoy a moment anymore.”

High social media use can be driven by the fear of missing out on something, but teens who report high use also report higher rates of depression. Most people only post the most positive things in life: their family vacations, their best photos of themselves, the delicious meal they are about to enjoy. This can lead viewers to feel as if their own lives and looks just don’t measure up. 

Cell phone use has also led to the lack of initiative, creativity, and independence among teens. Since they don’t go out with friends they don’t take as many risks — and here the emphasis is on taking “positive risks.” He wants kids to be able to find their “thing.” 

“When I leave, it is incumbent on the community” to get kids out doing real things, says Bellace. He adds that Block Island is the perfect place to get out and do things — that lots of people “would kill” to live by the ocean and have the opportunity to go fishing, swimming and all the other things Block Islanders could do - if they put down their phones. 

Bellace’s book is available at and several videos of him speaking can be found on You Tube.