Teens respond less to Mum's voice

The teen brain appears to be more rewarded when hearing the tones of a stranger
29 April 2022

Interview with 

Dan Abrams, Stanford University

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As the parents of Harry Enfield’s character “Kevin” knew only too well, when you talk to a teenager, sometimes it can feel like your words are going in one ear and out the other. And as a teenager yourself, you may have felt like interacting with someone else was infinitely cooler than listening to your parents. Now a study published this week in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that this selective tuning-out may actually be biological. Julia Ravey heard how from Stanford’s Dan Abrams…

Dan - We brought in a cohort of 13 to 16 year olds, and we brought in their moms, and we recorded their mom saying these very brief nonsense words:

Test audio clip - Key-butt-eye-schult.

Dan - And then we had their brain activity measured using FMRI when they heard both their mother's voice:

Test audio clip - Key-butt-eye-schult.

Dan - And unfamiliar female voices saying the exact same thing. But the mother said:

Test audio clip - Key-butt-eye-schult.

Dan - And, in contrast to what we saw with the younger kids, in adolescents we saw the exact opposite response, which is a greater reward response in response to unfamiliar voices compared to mother's voice. We saw this kind of switch.

Julia - Was that what you expected to see compared to the younger children?

Dan - I wish I could say that I saw this coming. Sometimes science works like this, where you stumble onto a really cool result. We think it's evolutionarily adaptive. We think that kids, at some point, need to build their own life, build their own social network, and make their own social world. And we think that the biological process needs to occur by which kids are required to leave their family and their immediate caregivers.

Julia - After learning about Dan's work, I had to get a first-hand assessment of my own teenage ears from none other than my mum, Shell: When I was a teenager, did I ignore you?

Michelle - Honestly, I can't think of a time that you did ignore me, to be honest. Maybe at the age of three you started to want to go your own way, you were more interested in other people then, really. You used to have a pram and you used to face me and used to have your head on a swivel to see everyone going past. But I wouldn't say you actually ignored us. I think you were a very good teenager, to be honest.

Julia - Did you feel like what you were saying, I wasn't listening to you?

Michelle - I feel that more now, really. You're in planet Julia, aren't you?

Julia - Well, yeah, this is very true, but I was going to apologise if you felt like that. But then I was gonna say, "It's biology." So, I apologise for biology.

Michelle - Don't be blaming biology. Wasn't that a song by - what was it - Little Mix?

Julia - Girls Aloud.

Julia - While we debate Noughtie's pop groups, it seems I've always ignored my parents. But for those living with teens now and who are struggling with this, and for teenagers themselves who are being told off for not taking in every word their parents say, I asked Dan if he had any tips based on his findings of how to handle this communication mismatch.

Dan - I think an important message is that it's easy to malign adolescents for not listening to their parents or for tuning out their parents. And, I think as adults, we can all look back on that and say, "Well, I wasn't entirely trying to block my parents out. I was just living my life and focusing on my friends." Adolescents tune into these new social partners, but it's not personal. This is just where their mind is going and this is just what their brain is doing. Parents should know that this is a natural part of adolescent development.

Julia - When we think about our own behaviour, and what dictates what we do, when we think about listening to someone, we think about the words and the instruction, not necessarily the voice itself. I think it's really interesting that your study has shown it's not the words, or the instruction, or even the emotion, it's just who's speaking.

Dan - Yeah. I think it's easy to take voices for granted: they're everywhere. We argue that voices are among the most pleasurable stimuli that we have in our everyday lives. They help people feel connected and part of a group and part of a family. It speaks to how important it is to hear each other and to connect with each other in  natural ways that are without our devices and without texting and all the like.

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