As soon as Abigail Judge took the podium for the special, all-school assembly, she had a question for her audience. “Why did Williston make me come here?” she asked the gymnasium of students, faculty, and staff. “Any ideas about what I might tell you?”
There was a thoughtful silence as the crowd glanced at the title of her talk, “Social Media and Teenagers: Finding Low Tech Solutions to High Tech Challenges,” projected onto a screen on the stage. Then, one by one, students began to raise their hands.
The psychology and social media expert might be there, they suggested, to talk about subtweeting, sexting, or cyber bulling. She might tell them to use technology without being harmful to others, remind the students that what they post online is permanent, and let them know that there were offline ways to express emotions such as anger or desire.
“Your intuitions are absolutely right on,” Dr. Judge said. “Part of the difficulty about talking about technology is that I know you can say the right things because you know them. It’s harder in practice, however.”
Dr. Judge, an instructor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and clinical and child forensic psychologist in Cambridge, has spent much of her professional career exploring the intersection of technology and the brain.
During her December 13 talk, she brought up some cautionary tales, such as the case of Phillip Alpert, who was slapped with felony child pornography charges as an 18 year old after sending naked pictures of his newly ex-girlfriend to her contact list.
“I’d like to talk for just a second about what the disconnect might be between knowing what not to do and doing it,” Dr. Judge said. The responses came quickly: Mr. Alpert was probably not in a good state of mind right after his breakup, one student offered. His emotions were driving his decisions, said another. There’s an aspect of insecurity, proposed a third.
“You guys have picked up on why a lot of problems exist,” agreed Dr. Judge. “There’s a disconnect between what you know and what you act on in the moment.”
A big reason for this, she said, was that teenage brains have a bigger feedback loop between emotions and reward. During highly charged moments, teen brains are less able to link actions to long-term consequences. Using clips from PBS’s “Brains on Trial” and the movie “Disconnect,” Dr. Judge showed how such feedback loops could work. The PBS clip explored how teenagers were more likely to run yellow lights during a simulation and crash a virtual car if they thought their friends were watching the game. The latter showed how a joke between two friends might lead to cyber bulling.
“You can know the risks intellectually,” Dr. Judge said. “But your limbic system doesn’t evaluate them in the same way.”
This did not mean that students have crazy, or immature brains, she added, but that they had to learn to delay their reactions and avoid acting impulsively. Before making a decision online, Dr. Judge recommended students think through whether they were acting from an emotional place, the effects the action might have on the other person, and whether their friends were involved. Most of all, she said students should consider how their parents, prospective college recruiters, or teachers might react to a specific post.
“A lot of decisions that get us into trouble are quick ones,” Dr. Judge said. “As teens, you need to slow things down.”
Watch Dr. Judge’s presentation to parents: