BEHIND THEIR SCREENS: What Teens are Facing

Harvard University Project Zero researchers, Common Sense Media collaborators, and real life parents Emily Weinstein and Carrie James are the authors of BEHIND THEIR SCREENS: What Teens are Facing (and Adults are Missing). In their book, James and Weinstein combine their years of research on technology use by adolescents—including data gathered during the first year of the COVID pandemic—to explore how teens use their phones, messaging apps, social media, and more to navigate their real world relationships in new and surprising ways. The authors also have the benefit of the expertise of teens themselves. By working with dozens of middle and high school students across the United States—part of the authors’ Teen Advisory Council—Weinstein and James explain in adolescents’ own words why they do what they do online, and what tweens and teens wish their parents understood about the connected world they’re living in.

Studies finding that tech use among young people leads to more depression and other harmful side effects gloss over important differences. The impacts vary widely from person to person, and for many adolescents tech use helps them in myriad ways far more than it hurts them. The following themes are explored:

  • Being connected to their friends 24/7 isn’t all fun and games for young people. Their peers often demand immediate responses, feedback, and “likes” in order to stay in their friendship group, so young people have had to come up with (often exhausting) strategies to be or appear engaged, even when they’d rather not;
  • When it comes to sexting, it’s not a question of whether to send nudes—many teens already are. The authors reveal nine reasons why young people sext even when they’re well-aware of the risks. Instead of laying down a blanket ban, adolescents wish their parents would talk to them about how to think about who to trust, what to send, how to say no, and how to protect themselves;
  • Apps are used by young people for more than mindless fun—so arbitrary limits aren’t helpful. Instead, parents need to learn from their kids what’s used for study groups, schoolwork help, or even social and emotional support from their teen’s peers;
  • Tech features that seem like stress-reducers can be anything but. “Close Friends Stories,” for example, reduce the pressure of projecting a perfect image to a wide audience – but they also fuel new dynamics around social exclusion;
  • Cancel culture is a perennial fear, on large and small scales. The same term that has become politicized in the adult world is also contentious among teens. Yet cancel culture has another layer of meaning now that regular teens are “cancelled” by peers for indiscretions large and small;
  • Posting about politics is not simply “easy activism.” Peers monitor who speaks up and who doesn’t about every issue, calling out anything they view as hypocritical, performative, problematic, or insincere. What’s deemed ‘okay’ is different in different contexts, but teens from all over describe the unavoidable civic dimension of social media;
  • Even teens who worry a lot about their “digital footprint” and how long it lasts can make damaging mistakes. Despite the conventional wisdom that adults should double-down on messages about the permanence of posts, these warnings are out of step with teens’ digital decision making. Teens could use some adult perspective on managing missteps when they happen. And gatekeepers who decide about job offers and college admissions should think twice about how they use online evidence of teenage transgressions.
  • Because of brain development, tween and teens are even more susceptible than adults to the psychological tools our phones and social media use to lure us into interacting with them frequently. This is why it can be so hard for adolescents to disengage, and they could use constructive support from adults about how and when to disconnect;
  • Tweens and teens share many of the same concerns as their parents about their tech use. Young people wish that instead of getting hard-line rules from their parents about tech, that their parents would help them manage the pull of technologies design are to ‘hook’ them, and help them trouble-shoot hard topics before they come up in real life;
  • Parents are inadvertently undercutting their own good advice. Parents advise teens to post with respect for others…and then post pictures of their kids without permission. Parents teach kids not to be distracted by tech during conversations…then answer email during dinner. Adolescents really wish their parents would disengage from online life to be with them instead, and stop creating more unwanted content with their faces on it.

BEHIND THEIR SCREENS is a truly eye-opening look into the lives of today’s middle- and high school-aged children, who are more connected than any previous generation. These young people are straddling the line between life in the real world and life that takes place virtually…but with real world consequences. The good news is that most young people want their parents to talk to them about the tech they’re using—their parents just need to learn how. This is the book that can teach them.

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