Picture: Getty Images

Adolescents are spending more time online than ever before, but how their still-developing brains are dealing with the information onslaught is unknown, a US expert says.

Dr Jay Giedd from the US National Institute of Mental Health is investigating the impact of this constant connectivity on young people's brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Dr Giedd, who has been leading a long-term study of brain development involving twins since 1991, said that in the past decade, researchers observed a massive shift in the time people spent on computers or mobile devices.

The change was most evident in adolescents entering their 20s, who spent larger chunks of time online compared to people their age 10 years earlier.

"We had this huge revolution in terms of the amount of time our participants were spending outside and playing," Dr Giedd said.

"It was just being so dramatically changed by technologies."

The observations led to a whole new arm of the study seeking to determine whether the digital revolution will be good, bad or both, for the teenage brain.

Dr Giedd said the proliferation of technology had led to children multitasking; for example watching YouTube videos while monitoring Facebook and doing their homework at the same time.

Using MRI scans, researchers will study how teenagers' brains process multiple streams of information.

The aim will be to determine whether those who multitask get better at it, or if it is less efficient than focusing on one project.

Dr Giedd said views were polarised about the impact of technology on the younger generation.

Further research would hopefully provide answers.

He said the developing brain had never before had to process so much information at once.

"In a couple of clicks and less than a minute we can find almost any fact, or figure," he said.

"There's huge upsides in terms of access to information, which is very unusual in our human history.

"It's never been like this before.

"The downside is that it's so fast and so accessible, people are not learning to think deeply, to have that quiet time of reflection."

However, he said the adolescent brain had a lot going for it because it was built to change and adapt to its environment.

The West Australian

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