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Posted at 11:23 AM ET, 09/ 4/2010

How 'Twilight,' other dark fiction affect teen brains

By Valerie Strauss

Scientists, authors and education experts are meeting this weekend at Cambridge University to investigate how the teenage brain is affected or altered by reading the "Twilight" saga, the "Harry Potter" series and other books that invite fear and anxious emotional responses.

Edward Cullen altering the teen brain? This is one education conference that I would have enjoyed attending. (I have two teenage daughters.)

It turns out, according to the organizer of the interdisciplinary conference, called "The Emergent Adult -- Adolescent Literature and Culture,” that fiction with dark themes does indeed alter teen brains in sometimes important ways.

The conference is bringing together scientists, authors and education experts to make connections between recent neuroscience research and the representation of the adolescent in literature, film, computer games and social networking sites. Participants are looking at the physiological, psychological, chemical and sociological effects of reading teenage fiction, said organizer Maria Nikolajeva, who is the first director of the Cambridge/Homerton Research and Training Center for Children’s Literature, which is dedicated to studying children’s media.

The trend for darkness and dystopia in children’s literature reflects concerns in the wider, adult world, Nikolajeva said. A hundred years ago, books for kids were dominated with stories about boys having adventures and girls finding husbands; then, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the themes were emerging sexuality and parental conflict.

Inside the teenage brain, synapses are breaking and reforming, and the chemistry keeps changing. Teenagers can’t make decisions in the same way adults can, Nikolajeva said, and she noted that authors, filmmakers and game developers have a moral obligation to make sure that their works contain some positive ethic.

To find out more, including about what parents should do, I e-mailed Nikolajeva. Here’s the discussion, and if you have further questions you’d like me to ask, please send them to me at

Q. Let me start by asking you this: Are kids’ brains really changed after they read the "Twilight" saga or "Harry Potter"? What does change mean, anyway, in this context?

A. We have always known that encounters with art and literature affect our senses. We feel joy, sorrow, fear, anxiety, grief. We empathize with the characters. We learn from them about ourselves and about other people. What we know today from neuroscience is that there are spots in the brain that are responsible for these feelings, that it is possible to identify parts of the brain affected by reading or watching a film. Adolescent brain goes through a significant and rapid change; everything that affects it leaves deep imprints. Very dark fiction creates and amplifies a sense of insecurity, which is typical of adolescence; but it can also be a liberation, when readers "share" their personal experience with that of fictional characters. So yes, all readers’ brains are changed after they have read a book, but teenage brains are especially perceptive and therefore vulnerable.

What kind of "deep imprints"? Does deep mean lasting?

Yes, both lasting and delving deeply into the mind.

About the notion of vulnerability: Is there a possibility that an exclusive diet of such material could negatively affect some teens?

Definitely. Here comes the question of responsibility. Writers who address young audience should, in an ideal world, be very careful about what they say. Exactly because teenage brains lack the ability to make judgments. In plain words, they may get wrong ideas. Not because they are stupid, but because their brains are wired like that. Because they are socially and emotionally unstable. The so-called social brain is under development during adolescence. Small children presumably do and believe what they are told to. Adolescents start to think for themselves, they interrogate, they doubt.

What does modern brain research tell us about the differences between adult and kids brains when it comes to reading?

So far it is all basic emotions: joy, sorrow, fear. But teenage readers can get extremely engaged with what they read, for instance, "fall in love" with fictional characters. Once again, not because they are stupid, but because there is so much going on in the brain (synapses that get pruned, other connections made, etc.) that it gets confusing, as if you were watching 10 movies at the same time. By the way, teenagers do -- perhaps not watch 10 movies, but listen to music, chat, blog, watch, read, all at the same time. With adults, it gets much more quiet. As adults we can take distance from what we read or see. For teenagers, it’s all real and close.

What is the best research telling us about how kids read on screens vs. paper?

There are several papers at the conference addressing this question, and different opinions. Some say it does not matter whether we read linear texts (traditional, printed texts) or non-linear, printed or visual or multimedia. Some are worried that traditional reading skills disappear. The best research is just about starting [to investigate] these issues. They are sensitive because they deal with traditional educational values.

Serious research should be free from moral panic. There is a lot to be studied, not least through neuroscience. What we do know is that young people whose mother tongue is not English get considerably better skills in English because of social media. They simply need to be able to read and write. This may be true of English-language kids, too.

How is the conference being organized? Tell me a little about the focus of different sessions.

The idea of the conference is to have an active scholarly discussion, so papers have been circulated in advance, and the sessions will be working sessions with discussants, and with panelists commenting on each other’s papers. The main point is to mix disciplines, so a literary scholar, a psychologist and a sociologist may meet within the same session (rather than putting all psychology papers in the same session). There are papers about real adolescents and fictional adolescents and virtual adolescents (e.g. blogs). And a variety of topical issues, such as identity, sexuality, social engagement, gender. And also art, music, media and popular culture.

It is also a mix of established and beginning scholars, and good international mix -- 20 countries. The main goal, for me, is to make connections. It all started when a sociology colleague at the faculty said to me: "And what do you know about adolescents?" So I decided we needed to talk to each other across disciplines and share what we know.

The idea that kids fall in love with fictional characters is so true. I’ve seen it happen. But what is the danger there? Can this affect their view of reality in a negative way?

Yes, because fictitious characters are not like real people; usually -- not always -- they are less complex, more predictable, their behavior may be driven by the plot rather than by psychological motivation, and it can be very confusing for young people. Especially in popular culture where all girls are beautiful and all men strong and handsome. Literature and art are not direct images of reality, and you need to be a mature reader/viewer to understand the fictional reality. A young girl who falls in love with a literary character may get problems with social relationships in real life.

Please talk a little bit about the trend in young people’s literature.

Well, this would take a couple of hours. YA fiction is about the marginal situation between childhood and adulthood. Childhood is over, but it was secure and somewhat straightforward. Adulthood is enticing, but uncertain and strange. The body changes unpredictably. The mind is out of control. Nothing is stable. There are rules to break and boundaries to test.

Relationship with parents or parental figures is crucial. But the thing is that, with few exceptions, YA novels are written by adults. So they are in fact not about what is it to be an adolescent, but what it should be, since, perhaps unconsciously, adults want to instruct young people and guide them into adulthood. So images of adolescence in YA fiction are images of what adults want teenagers to believe. It’s a very powerful ideological tool.

YA novels have successively explored various issues of adolescence, starting with sexuality in the 1960s and then death, suicide, sexual identity, anorexia, etc. Today the most prominent trend is dystopia, possibly because the world is what it is today, but also because placing an adolescent in an extreme situation is a good pedagogical and narrative device. "Hunger Games" is a very good example. But YA fiction has always been more dark and bleak than literature for younger children.

What can/should parents do in regard to letting kids read dark material?

Nothing. Kids will always find ways of accessing materials that the adults want to hide from them, and with Internet there is no control over what they can get hold of. So it is important to let young people be exposed to all kinds of literature and culture, dark and light, serious and entertaining; and it is always a good idea to talk to kids about what they read, watch or listen to. Many grown-ups today read the same books that teenagers read: "Harry Potter," "His Dark Materials," "Twilight" and much more -- the so-called crossover literature. Then parents/teachers and kids can talk to each other, share their reading experience. This is the best one can do.
The worst one can do is to forbid or restrict.

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By Valerie Strauss  | September 4, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Literature, Reading, Research  | Tags:  altering teen mind, brain research, cambridge university conference, dark themes in young adult literature, edward cullen, effects on teen brains, emergent adult, emergent adult conference, harry potter and twilight, his dark materials, how teen brains are affected by reading, neuroscience and teenage brain, teenage brain, themes in YA lit, twilight, twilight and teen mind, twilight saga, young adult literature  
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Good article. This is something I have thought of before.

Posted by: educationlover54 | September 4, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Sounds like a great conference!

I do have a concern that teens have opportunities to experience a balance in what they are exposed to, if not through reading then through theater, dance, festivals, etc. It's one thing to be immersed in fantasy/fiction that is dark if you have a strong family structure or other supports. But for teenagers reading dark material who are very insecure, depressed, etc. it would be good if adults (probably teachers!)could provide some positive, lighter experiences as a counterbalance.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | September 4, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Small children presumably do and believe what they are told to.

Beware of the experts that do not know what they are talking about.

Most young children quickly pick up inconsistencies and contradictions.

Tell a child one thing and then have adults accept contradictions and most young children will recognize the contradiction.

Set up a routine and time for a child to go to bed based upon telling the child that they must go to bed and this will works while the adults are consistent.

Have adults be inconsistent for their own convenience and getting a young child to go to bed can be mayhem.

All those teachers in classes with young children are simply wasting their time in telling and expecting children to be well behaved when they accept and tolerate the children that are not behaved.

The reality is that young children see contradictions quicker than adults.
As for books, children read Harry Potter for the same reason that adults read pot boilers. They are interesting. The difference is that the Harry Potter books are better in vocabulary and writing style than many of the adult potboilers.

I have read the Harry Potter novels since these were a favorite of my child since she was seven. She also read Brian Jacque after going through the Raoul Dahl books.

It is interesting that those who speak of books for adolescents fail to recognize that 50 years ago there was no such thing as adolescent books. At public libraries there was the children section and the adult section. When you finished the 6th grade you could obtain a library card for the adult section.

I always find it amusing that there are American parents that are concerned about their children reading Harry Potter. I would be more concerned about children watching commercial TV.

I can not comment about the "Twilight" books since my child has no interest in reading these books. Her last interest in reading was the Jane Austen novels.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 4, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

I've got my doubts about the science here, but it makes sense to be careful about anything we put into our minds and bodies. What sort of research has been done on why certain teens prefer dark themes? Has any of the changed behavior data been correlated with depression statistics, demographic data, geography, and other possible factors? Repetition of cognitive inputs has been shown to affect the strength of memory traces and synaptic connections. So I can see how the brain itself might change shape. My question is why would teens go there in the first place? To me, that's the more important question.

Posted by: dannykurland1 | September 4, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

I've got my doubts about the science here, but it makes sense to be careful about anything we put into our minds and bodies. What sort of research has been done on why certain teens prefer dark themes?
Posted by: dannykurland1
This is the problem with these types of articles.

I have not read the "Twilight" books but the author of the articles equates the Harry Potter books with "Twilight".

"But YA fiction has always been more dark and bleak than literature for younger children."

The Harry Potter novels are not dark and bleak and this is pure nonsense.

I seriously doubt that any but an already disturbed child would see "he who can not be named" as a hero and someone to be emulated.

An already disturbed child would see the wolf in little Red Riding Hood as a hero and someone to be emulated.

The reality is that the Harry Potter books are really about good triumphing over evil. Might as well call the "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" or Treasure Island as "dark and bleak". Remember in Treasure Island kills the pirate that is trying to kill him.

At the same time Americans fully accepted at the time of 9/11 the idea that primary school children had to be made fully aware of the events of 9/11. Adults with common sense would have seen no purpose in rubbing the nose of young children into the reality of death and destruction.

Time to recognize that so many ideas regarding children simply totally lack common sense.

Posted by: bsallamack | September 4, 2010 3:35 PM | Report abuse

Teenage readers fall in love with characters but adults distance themselves? Excuse me? Has Ms Nikolajeva ever heard a group of women discussing a soap opera? Does she remember the publicity about the end of the "Seinfeld" and "Friends" TV shows? Hasn't she ever read of the Britons who wore armbands in mourning when A. Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in "The Last Problem" (and of the people who even today write to Sherlock Holmes at 221B Baker Street, asking him to solve mysteries for them)?

If you want to argue that adolescents approach literature differently than adults, use a better argument.

(By the way, not only was there no YA literature 50 years ago, but even earlier,
"Moby Dick" was considered an adventure story for boys, not to be trifled with by serious-minded adults.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 4, 2010 8:12 PM | Report abuse

Wow! Looks like you touched a sore spot with this article. Ms. Nikolajeva made some interesting points. Since parents have little chance to keep their adolescents from being exposed to all manner of visual or print media these days, it makes "sense" to me that we should make sure they are media "literate." Schools are pushing technology and media but not offering adequate opportunity for students to analyze and be critical consumers!

Posted by: lbarrios1 | September 4, 2010 11:24 PM | Report abuse

Actually, 50 years go my local library DID have a young adult section, but the books didn't address quite the same themes as they do today.

Posted by: dottie_b | September 4, 2010 11:55 PM | Report abuse

Major brands always give out their popular brand samples (in a way it is similar to coupons) I alway use qualityhealth to get mine enjoy your free samples

Posted by: jessychris05 | September 5, 2010 12:26 AM | Report abuse

Interesting subject.

I am an author of books for kids and I visit schools to teach workshops about writing. During my visits I read and listen to stories written by kids. Most of what they write is violent and death oriented.

One teacher sent me a letter from a 10 year old boy that said, "I love the story of "Julie & The Lost Fairy Tale" because it was a good story and when I read it it made me happy." The teacher said that his comment made her wonder if many of the books he read did not make him happy for my story to stand out like that for him.

I asked a group of middle grade students if they liked to read scary stories. Most said they did. Then I asked how many of you can't go to sleep at night after reading a scary story. Again most of them said they have a hard time going to sleep. That is sad.

The question put to parents and educators is: "Do our children choose these books because they like to read them or are they marketed to them."

Just take a look at the new violent toys (including Twilight toys)given to kids in our fast food restaurants. The answer should be clear.

I have also attended many workshops and seminars for children's writers. We are told that if you want to be published by a major publisher you have to write what sells. So it seems it is the almighty dollar that dictates what we write and what our children read. Sad...but true.

Posted by: janielbl | September 5, 2010 3:34 PM | Report abuse

jessychris05: buy an ad, cheapskate. This space is supposed to be for comments about the topic.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | September 6, 2010 12:03 PM | Report abuse

I read "Twilight" when kids started to discuss it. I thought of it as the author's attempt to cope with the difficult Bible themes through roleplay. In general, fantasy and roleplay are great coping mechanisms. The Bible, being somewhat old, does not necessarily provide modern roleplay themes modern kids could use (sparkly vampires?) while it's full of dark, difficult, painful themes.

"Harry Potter" raises the questions of racism, government oppression and citizen's militia resistance, among others. Again, situating the topics in a modern fantasy roleplay world provides many more coping mechanisms than, say, "The Animal Farm" (old-fashioned roleplay/fable) or "Brave new world."

"Narnia" is an example of roleplay-based coping with the Bible themes that was highly relevant when it came out. It's becoming somewhat obsolete because the metaphors have moved on, and also because of its racism. Still, it's a great example of the same idea.

And don't even get me started on Dickens or Dostoyevsky! Actually, I bet that every single one of "100 greatest books of all time" is full of deeply disturbing themes.

That's because it is important to think about deep themes.

Posted by: MariaDroujkova | September 7, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

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