In search of the Twilight zone that may lurk in teenage brains
Scientists are to examine what effects books that carry darker themes, such as the hugely popular Twilight series, are having on the teenage brain.
Psychologists, authors and education experts will gather at Cambridge University this weekend to discuss whether there are "twilight zones" in the teenage mind that are affected or altered by reading books like the vampire-based romance novels by Stephanie Meyer.
The study coincides with recent neuroscience research that shows there is a link between how the young mind responds to books, video games and social media.
Professor Maria Nikolajeva, who organised the event, said: "Authors have always tried to reflect how young people feel and how their emotions react to things, but they do this by intuition and by their own memories.
"What has happened in the last 10 years is that neuroscience has become more sophisticated and scientists have been able to identify the areas of the brain that show how this development actually happens.
"The ability to make decisions, the feelings of uncertainty all have to do with the development of the brain. Authors have known and portrayed this for years but we're only just able to show how it works scientifically."
According to Professor Nikolajeva, books that are aimed at the teenage market are increasingly drawing from events and concerns in the wider world.
"These trends come in waves," she said. "A hundred years ago it was about boys having adventures and girls finding husbands.
"From the 1950s to the 1970s we had emerging sexuality and parent conflict. Now, the situation in the world makes us anxious.
"We've had things like 911 and global warming - there is fear and disaster. Since the turn of the millennium this has been a tangible trend which is interesting - and disturbing."
This has meant that today's authors have a greater moral responsibility, especially as popular trends move towards darker, horror-based themes, such as in Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, which is set in a post-apocalyptic society where girls and boys are forced into fights to the death.
"Teenagers cannot really make decisions in the same way adults can," Professor Nikolajeva said. "Synapses in their brains are breaking and reforming and the chemistry of the brain is changing.
"There is a social responsibility that goes with this. However, with most of the books and films aimed at teenagers, you find there is always some hope."
Ruth Harrison, senior project manager at the Reading Agency, said: "Twilight is essentially a love story, that is why so many girls are reading it and in many ways it is incredibly moral.
"Reading is so important for young people, as it allows them to explore different issues including potentially dangerous ones in a safe environment. It gives the opportunity to explore depth for reflection and to enjoy different material."
Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, said: "Dark themes in children's literature are no new phenomenon, most traditional fairy tales are infused with dark twists - Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland and other popular children's stories.
"Parents, teachers and librarians should, of course, have an eye to whether certain material could be upsetting for their children but, on the whole, publishers send out clear signals about suitability through the marketing of books."