What happens inside the brains of teenagers? New documentary seeks to answer

"The Teen Brain" premieres amid an ongoing mental health crisis for teens.

April 11, 2024, 10:03 AM

What happens inside the minds of teenagers?

A new documentary seeks to answer that question to help teens feel more understood by adults, and to help both adults and teens alike understand how the uniqueness of teen brains can actually be a super power.

"We talked to all the top neuroscientists in the space, and then we talked to so many teenagers," Tiffany Shlain, director of the documentary, called "The Teen Brain," told "Good Morning America." "We wanted to hear directly from teens -- what do you want to know about your brain? What do you wish adults knew about you, of what you're feeling?"

Thrilling, scary and stimulating were just some of the adjectives the teens featured in the film used to describe what it feels like inside their minds.

"A lot of it is like a roller coaster," one teen girl says in the documentary.

"Everything is just more extreme," says a teen boy.

"Emotions feel so strong," another teen says. "And it's so like, I’m upset in this moment and it’s hard to sort of see the bigger picture.”

PHOTO: A new documentary, "The Teen Brain," explores what is happening in the brains of teenagers.
A new documentary, "The Teen Brain," explores what is happening in the brains of teenagers.
"The Teen Brain"/MindUP/Let It Ripple

Experts in the documentary -- produced by "Mind Up," the mental health-focused nonprofit organization founded by actress Goldie Hawn -- share some of the medical reasons for why teens feel and experience so deeply in their teen years.

In one example, experts said the amygdala, the almond-shaped structure in the temporal lobe that is the processing center for emotions, becomes more sensitive during the adolescent years, and grows in size.

Ellen Galinsky, author of the book "The Breakthrough Years," describes in the documentary the importance of not comparing teens to adults, in part because of the different ways their brains are working and developing.

PHOTO: The Breakthrough Years, by Ellen Galinsky.
The Breakthrough Years, by Ellen Galinsky.

"We're using an adult yardstick to understand teenagers," Galinsky says in the documentary. "We wouldn't say that infants are deficit toddlers, but yet we think of teenagers as, you know, not quite adults, and we measure them that way. And that really affects how we talk to them."

The 10-minute documentary will be available to watch for free online beginning April 15. The filmmakers have a website where viewers can find out more information.

Hawn, who founded Mind Up in 2003, said she hopes the documentary gives a new perspective on being a teenager.

"I have wanted to create a film on the adolescent brain because it’s important for our teens, parents and educators to understand that being a teen is an extraordinary time to be alive," Hawn told "GMA" in a statement.

"The Teen Brain" documentary comes at a time that teenagers in particular are facing a mental health crisis, data shows, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and amid an onslaught of factors including widespread use of cellphones and social media.

Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 1 in 3 high school teens dealt with poor mental health during the pandemic, and 1 in 5 reported considering suicide.

Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory warning of an urgent public health issue regarding social media usage and youth mental health.

Related Topics