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(December 5, 2010)

The Female Brain and Puberty

On the average, boys start puberty sometime between 10 and 15 years of age. Girls start earlier, usually between 8 and 13 years of age. Once a girl enters puberty, the process continues until 16-17 years old, overlapping much of her adolescence. This puts a 13-year-old girl in the middle of what can only be described as a difficult time of life.

The process of puberty is controlled by a variety of hormones. For boys, the most important of these hormones is testosterone. Interestingly enough, during puberty, boys' brains actually become less sensitive to stress. One reason is that their hormone changes are constant: the amount of testosterone produced is more or less the same from one day to another. Moreover, when boys need to decompress, it is natural for them to run around outside, play sports, be physically active, and compete (or even fight) with one another.

For girls, life is different. As puberty ramps up, their brains are inundated with estrogen and progesterone, which — compared to boys — makes girls feel and act differently in several important ways. First, until a girl's menstrual cycle becomes established, her estrogen and progesterone will fluctuate erratically. Moreover, even when her cycle finally becomes regular, a girl still lives within a continually changing hormonal environment. If a girl's body were to produce these hormones in the same amounts, day after day, it would not take long to adapt. However, this is not the case and, as a result, girls experience a roller-coaster effect that takes several years to settle down. During this time, girls tend to experience disconcerting changes in how they perceive their feelings and their emotional needs: sometimes daily or even hourly.[4]

Teenage girls' stress hormones levels are higher than boys', making them significantly more sensitive to pain, rejection, and conflict.

Second, as estrogen and progesterone surge, they provide strong stimulation to the communication and emotional areas of the girl's brain that were established during fetal development. (See the discussion in the Section 2.) To be sure, the mental circuits do stabilize, but it takes a few years. In the meantime, pubescent girls are much more sensitive to stress. Compared to boys, girls are more aware of what they are feeling and far more responsive to their emotions. They are also highly sensitive to emotional nuances, even when what they think they perceive is not necessarily true. As a result, girls' cortisone (stress hormone) levels are higher than boys', making them significantly more sensitive to pain, rejection, and conflict.

Is it any wonder why, at this age, so many girls are subject to emotional outbursts? ("I hate you, I hate you, I hate you — you're the worst parent in the whole world," followed by the slamming of the bedroom door.)

So how do pubescent girls relieve their daily stress? They do what comes naturally. Not only are their brains wired for communication, girls at this age are driven by hormones to connect, to feel, and to talk. And, whenever they do, their brain releases a surge of two neurotransmitters (brain chemicals), dopamine and oxytocin. Dopamine is particularly powerful, stimulating the brain's pleasure center, which make girls feel good. Oxytocin has a different effect. It creates a sense of intimacy, bonding, trust, and connectedness. The combination makes girls feel good while significantly lowering their stress levels.

How important is this feeling? Consider this quotation from the book The Female Brain[5], written by Louann Brizendine M.D., the director of the Women's Mood and Hormone Clinic in San Francisco:

"We're not talking about a small amount of pleasure. This is huge. It's a major dopamine and oxytocin rush, which is the biggest, fattest neurological reward you can get outside of an orgasm."

Is it any wonder why pubescent girls love to spend so many hours hanging out together and talking? Indeed, if they are to maintain good mental health, they need to talk a lot. Can you now see why, if they can't talk in person, girls will talk on the phone? And if they can't talk on the phone, they will text message as much as they can? And if they can't text or IM (instant message) each other, they will obsessively check in with Facebook.

Let us now return to 13-year-old Reina, our text messaging goddess, whom we discussed in the previous section. Recall her comment: "I have like four close friends that I'm constantly texting. I don't really think there is a point. It's just fun to talk." By now, is in not becoming clear why Reina wants to text all day long? And why, although she doesn't realize it, there is a point.

At her age, Reina has a very strong need — not only socially, but biologically — to reach out and connect to other people. In her situation, the most convenient and satisfying way to meet this need is to talk with other girls her own age, girls who are in the same stage of life and understand her feelings. This is why, whenever she hangs out with her friends, telling stories, chatting, and gossiping, she feels so good. Not only is Reina stimulating the pleasure center of her brain in a way that makes her feel good and relieves her stress, she is, in a real sense, acting in harmony with her biology.

So what's wrong with that? Clearly, Reina is passing through a stage of life, indeed, a particularly confusing and difficult stage of life. Eventually things will settle down. If, right now, she wants to text message all day long and she is on a school break (and has a phone plan that allows unlimited texting), why is that a problem?

It is a problem for several reasons. First, Reina has important needs to meet. Within reason, she will be better off when she gets enough day-to-day communication to meet her needs. However, can texting really do the job?

I say no. I maintain that texting (and instant messaging, emailing, or even talking on the phone) does not provide the type of social connections human beings need to thrive. It is my contention that none of these communication facilities — unparalleled in the history of mankind — will ever provide the type of social connections human beings really need. I further maintain that much of the awkward and irritating behavior people demonstrate when communicating in this way can be explained by the fact that they are fruitlessly looking for an outlet that technology cannot provide.

Like other basic characteristics, our need to communicate developed over hundreds of thousands of years as modern humans evolved from more primitive ancestors. Throughout this time, there was no such thing as communication at a distance. If two people wanted to communicate, they had to do so in person. In evolutionary terms, modern communication facilities — mobile phones, email, television, radio, landline telephones, telegraphs, postal mail, newspapers, and even books — are recent inventions, far too new to have any effect on shaping our basic nature.

When you examine the quality of talking in person, it's easy to see that it is a much richer experience than anything that can happen using technology. When Reina texts her four best friends, all she can see is words. When she talks with a friend in person, she not only hears the words, she sees her friend's appearance, her body language and her gestures. She hears the nuances of her friend's voice: the tone, the volume, and the rhythm. Moreover, she experiences a total environment: the location, the temperature, the ambient noise, the smells, and the presence or absence of other people.

No matter how hard a young girl tries, text messaging will never satisfy her deep, biological needs.

We can now see why Reina's texting is never going to meet her biological needs or the needs of her girlfriends: there is just too much missing. Still, we know that, if Reina is to be mentally healthy, she needs to talk to her friends a lot. Moreover, we also know that, to be effective, she needs to do it in person. So no matter how hard Reina tries, text messaging will never satisfy her deep, biological needs. Instead, the tiny surge of dopamine she gets every time she texts will induce her to try, repeatedly, to make herself feel good. No wonder she is addicted.

Addicted? If you think I am exaggerating, remember that Reina — and tens of millions of other girls all over the world — repeat this same behavior as often as they can, day after day after day. Take a moment to ask yourself how people like Reina would feel if someone took away their phones? We'll talk about it in more detail later but, for now, I'll tell you: such people go through a serious, very uncomfortable period of withdrawal.

Unfortunately, people like Reina's father (who wrote the article about her)[3] still think the whole thing is cute. And yet an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry describes technology-mediated addictions as a common disorder, a compulsive-impulsive condition, often with serious consequences, that can be very difficult to treat.[6]

Consider a Nielsen study of 50,000 cell phone users across the U.S. In the second quarter of 2008, on the average, cell phone users sent and received 357 text messages per month: this was a 450 percent increase since 2006. Teenagers (ages 13-17) texted more than any other demographic group: their average was 1,742 texts per month (that is, 58/day).

Nevertheless, as extreme and as unhealthy as this may sound, true addicts like Reina — and there are many of them — live in a world that is even more extreme and unhealthy. (As you may remember from the previous section, Reina was sending and receiving an average of 436 texts a day.)

As human beings we are social animals. If we are to maintain our mental health, we need to talk to one another a lot and, as much as possible, we need to do so in person. As important as this is for everyone, it is crucial for teenage girls, for whom communication and bonding are particularly strong needs: an undeniable part of their biological nature. As such, it is easy to see how so many teenage girls are manipulated by their hormones that — in concert with unrestricted access to communication technology — silently create an almost irresistible desire to use their phones and computers to talk, text, IM one another, and check Facebook incessantly, even though the experiences are, ultimately, not satisfying the girls' real needs.

What I want you to appreciate is that what I have just described is the recipe for addiction: a behavior (or a drug) gives you the feeling of meeting your needs, without actually doing so. You get hooked on the feeling, while never actually satisfy the need. (After all, if texting satisfied Reina's need for high quality communication, she wouldn't have to do it 436 times a day.) After a while, your brain cells and brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) start changing and, if you are predisposed, you soon become addicted.

Am I saying that all teenage girls become addicted to their phones? No, I won't go that far. But I do assert that many such girls — far more than you would suspect — are addicted and that, at the very least, almost every young girl with a phone becomes habituated. What's even more scary is that such addiction and habituation is happening significantly earlier in life than it used to.

We'll talk about why this is the case in a few moments. Before we do, however, I'd like to discuss what I believe to be a particularly important question: if so many teenage girls and truly addicted to their phones and their computers, what would happen if they were forced to stop?

The answer to this question actually applies to a great many people, not just teenage girls. Indeed, a vast number of people of all ages, both men and women, are strongly habituated — to the point of addiction — to the very same electronic services that control the behavior of so many teenage girls. My guess is that you know at least several people, perhaps many people, whose lives are characterized by excessive phone use: texting, voice calls, email, Facebook checking, playing games, and running apps.

Although you may not realize it, most teenage girls live in a more extreme version of that world and, to them, quitting — or even cutting back — is simply not an option.

Jump to top of page


1. Introduction
2. A Word From Our Sponsor
3. The Female and Male Brains
4. Excessive Text Messaging
5. The Female Brain and Puberty
6. Introducing The Pleasure Center
7. Why Is It So Hard To Quit
8. Girls and Puberty
9. Girls and Premature Puberty
10. Why Your 10 Year Old Daughter Wants Her Own Phone
11. A Final Note
12. References