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The Complex World of Teens and Screens

Harvard researchers Emily Weinstein and Carrie James tell us what teens are really doing while on their phones.
Smartphones, Teens, and Unhappiness

Project Zero Researchers Carrie James and Emily Weinstein, authors of Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And Adults Are Missing), give the low-down on teens' behavior online. As part of a multiyear study, they surveyed more than 3,500 teens uncovering information about everything from why they sext to how they navigate friendship dilemmas online. What teens do and why is far more complex than many adults give them credit for. As a result, Weinstein and James say that adults are missing key opportunities to truly guide their teens, instead falling back on tired and useless messaging.

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, they provide a glimpse into teens' online worlds and offer strategies for adults eager to connect with and help the young adults in their lives. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast.

What are teens doing on their smartphones all the time? That question is what drove Harvard researchers Emily Weinstein and Carrie James to find out what's happening behind teen screens. The answer is far more complicated than many adults realize. They surveyed more than 3,500 teens across the U.S. finding out everything from why they sext to how they navigate friendship dilemmas online. What really struck me about their research is as adults, we tend to offer useless advice and dismiss teen phone use as just an addiction. So parents are missing real opportunities to help teens, they say. I asked Emily to tell me more about the complex relationship teens have with their phones.

Emily Weinstein: We heard again and again from teens that they don't want to feel dysregulated when it comes to their technology use, and that they actually have pretty impressive, even amazing awareness of what tech habits they have that are serving them and the tech habits that they wish they could change. We had so many quotes from teens about just this feeling of, I don't know why, but this app, TikTok is running my life, or I keep falling asleep on social media and I wish I didn't. And what we found that's actually so powerful about that recognition is that adults often get really stuck in this position of being like a referee when it comes to teens technology use, where we're just blowing the whistle when kids do something wrong or calling teens out when they misstep. We get stuck in this position.

But when we recognize that actually teens concerns about their own habits sound a lot like the concerns that we have about their habits, we can start those conversations with much more of a, we're in this with you mindset, and be in this coaching role where instead of just blowing the whistle on things being wrong, we have conversations that start with a recognition that actually teens want to feel more agency and control over their tech habits and that we can really play an important role in helping them get there if we start with what they see and what they want for themselves instead of with the assumption that we have to be in this adversarial, constant battle with them over screen time.

Carrie James: Yeah, what's really helpful about that is that it leads us to a conversation where we recognize that we're all vulnerable to the pull of the screen in so many ways. And the tech features that social media companies build into apps and devices, they're really compelling. Things like infinite scrolls, you never reach the end of your feed or you want to see the latest, newest thing and notifications. We're all tempted and pulled in by that, but recognizing that that's one feature that all of us grapple with. But also that it's even harder for adolescents because of their developmental sensitivities to peer feedback and validation that leads them to feel much more challenged about resisting that pull to the screen.

Jill Anderson: I think a lot of adults can relate to that feeling as well. And I want to get back to the concerns and the awareness in a little bit. But I was struck by how much of a bad rap social media gets, almost like everyone points their fingers at it as the root of all causes of young people's problems. But your work is showing that there just isn't a one size fits all for how teens are responding to social media. You met a lot of teens who had positive affirming relationships with social, and of course you've met plenty of teens who had the opposite experience. Did that surprise you? And why is it so important that we make these distinctions in our teens?

Emily Weinstein: The details really matter when it comes to teen social media experiences, and we just saw that so clearly in our most recent research, we've seen that again and again that it's so important that adults actually tune into the particulars of what a teen is actually experiencing on social media and how they're feeling because of it. This is one of the reasons that actually a sole focus on screen time often falls short or a search for main effects might not seem as gratifying. The effect sizes might not be as big as we anticipate, and then we're wondering, why am I not seeing in the data what I feel like I know I see for this kid in my life, which is this really positive or really negative impact? And we really came to the sense from our data that teens experiences just differ so tremendously. And when you look at the details, it's obvious why, because you have teens who are bringing different sensitivities to their social media experiences, and then they are doing different things on social media.

So you have one teen who's spending an hour browsing, you know how to nail a skateboarding trick videos or learning about their interest in a particular language or culture or exploring book talk. And you have another teen who is spending it exactly that same amount of time, an hour, connecting with friends who make them feel really supported, and cousins who make them feel they're part of a really important powerful, strong family unit. And then you have a 13 who's spending that exact same amount of time browsing peers videos that just make them feel like, why does everyone have better friendships than me? Or why is it that I can't have access to these things, these relationships or these feelings or these experiences that my peers have? And then you have other teens who are spending an hour looking at misinformation and conspiracy theories. And when we look at these details, we suddenly see that actually they're having really different experiences on their screens and they're unsurprisingly feeling really differently as a result of those experiences.

Carrie James: There's one idea in various sciences called differential susceptibility that's been really, really relevant in media research. And there's been this powerful metaphor for distilling the essence of that. It's a floral metaphor, orchids versus dandelions. And if we think about it, orchids are very sensitive to different conditions, weather, climate and dandelions are much hardier flowers and they can weather an array of conditions.

And if as a parent you have two kids, you might notice that one is more orchid-like, and one is more dandelion-like. I definitely have two kids and that is the case for me in my parenting in my life. So similarly, if we blow that out and think about why it's so hard to make these really broad claims about the experience that teens in general are having about social media, the reality is that they're differently susceptible to the risks of social media. And it's important to know and tune into those details that Emily mentioned. Do you have a kid who's overall more sensitive or a kid who can weather the ups and downs of their lives in general? And then that's going to get amplified by social media. We think of social media as an amplifier, and the question is, what is it amplifying for your particular kid?

Emily Weinstein: One other piece here that's really important is that even knowing a kid has a particular sensitivity, we still need to have this disposition toward curiosity about their experiences because that interaction between sensitivities and content and onscreen experiences is relevant once more. You can imagine that if you have two teenagers who are struggling with body image issues, you might have one whose social media feed is filled with exactly the kinds of content that really reinforce body insecurity and feeling dissatisfied with their own body. And you might have another teen who has intentionally filled their whole feed with body positivity and inspiring content and things that make them feel much more comfortable in their own skin. And so even that shared sensitivity can play out in really different ways for kids depending on what they're doing on social media. So just once more, the details matter so much.

Jill Anderson: Is there a way as a parent that you can find out whether social media is helping or hurting your teen without breaching their privacy?

Carrie James: One thing is to lean into curiosity and importantly, non-judgmental curiosity. Trying to understand what's hard for teens, but also what's good and compelling about social media and other aspects of their digital lives. Asking about the good stuff first can actually be a really important power move, because if we only ask about what's hard, they'll see it as a leading question and they'll suspect that anything that they say that will confirm our worst instincts or suspicions that all of social media is bad and that teens are just having this really negative experience. So leaning into curiosity, non-judgmental curiosity and exploring both the ups and the downs is really important. Emily, what would you add? You want to bring in a couple of other rules of thumb?

Emily Weinstein: We have found that there is this magic formula of open-ended questions where you're not just asking a yes or no question, but really creating space for teens to share their perspectives. And then following with empathy and validation as the first impulse reaction. Accessing empathy has been something that we've been thinking and exploring a lot in our research. And one of the things we find is that one of the barriers to empathy for adults is often this feeling that we just want to roll our eyes. It feels dumb, like whatever dumb technology thing, and just say to our kids like, "Ugh, it just doesn't matter. Just get off TikTok, put down your phone. Don't worry about what people are doing on Snapchat." And often the what's new, the tech piece really distracts us from seeing the familiar feelings that are under whatever teens are grappling with.

And so when we actually search for the familiar, we realize things like, oh, it's not really Snapchat that's the problem, it's that my teen has just figured out that they were the only one of their friends not invited to the movies. Or it's not really just Instagram. It's that feeling really vulnerable as a teen feeling like you have this question about whether your friends really like you and how you fit into the world. That's really familiar and that's really hard. And social media is amplifying this reality, but it didn't create it. And when we find those familiar seeds of whatever is going on in our own experiences, we can tap empathy and then follow it with real validation in a genuine way that sort of paves the way for continued sharing and positive conversations.

Jill Anderson: You've already mentioned how teens are so much more aware, and they really are more savvy than we give them credit for. Parents seem to be taking almost the least helpful approach often, just telling your kid, You shouldn't sext because it's bad or it's going to ruin your life. Teens already know this. And knowing that, why do teens continue to sext and what do teens want to hear from their parents about sexting?

Carrie James: Yeah, sexting is a really hard topic, and as moms of daughters, Emily and I especially both feel that. But really slowing down and listening to teens, we learned a lot about their experiences and about how complicated it is. One thing that we heard is that there is a spectrum in terms of sexting. Like we unpack nine reasons why, for example, teens sext when they know that it can be a risky thing to do. And some of those reasons are really on the consensual and wanted end. They're really interested in exploring sexuality, they're curious, they want to feel closer to someone who they're talking with or flirting with or have a crush on, or they're in a relationship that's a relationship of trust and it's consensual and it's a positive experience. And we actually heard from teens, older teens in particular that there are plenty of stories where sexting happened, where it was in a relationship of trust and it was consensual and there are zero bad consequences.

So that's a part of their experience that if we don't look at and acknowledge then we don't really understand the full spectrum. Now we should be really worried about the other side of the spectrum, which is a real sense of pressure that teens can feel around asking for sext because boys, for example, feel like they should be asking or feeling like they should send a sext when they've been asked, because otherwise they will experience a negative consequence. They're feeling some sort of sense of threat. They're feeling in some cases, even blackmail, really, really negative experiences.

Emily Weinstein: A lot of teens told us that they feel tremendous pressure around sexting, as Carrie mentioned, that includes pressure to ask for nudes, pressure to send them even when they don't really want to. We also heard from teens about ways that adults impulses can get in our own ways of backfire. So if we say something to teens when something goes wrong, when a sext gets leaked, we double down on the message. See, this is why you should never ever send a nude picture in the first place. It could get leaked, it could ruin your whole reputation. One of the things that we heard from teens is that that message can actually reinforce a feeling that it is okay to forward someone else's nudes if you receive them, because the thinking can go like you should have known better. If it's really the fault of the person who sent it in the first place, then I'm not to blame for just sharing it on because they really should have known better.

And teens told us that they really need us to shift away from the message that is just don't send a sex and amplify two other messages in its place. One is, do not ask someone for a sext because it is extremely hard to say no, especially if the request is coming from someone who you like and you want to feel close to. So tell teens, don't ask for nudes. You put the other person in a really hard position. And then number two, if a picture is leaked, rather than doubling down on this message of that person should have known better, saying again and again to teens, it is never ever okay to forward on someone else's nude picture or share it with people who are not the intended audience.

If for any reason you receive one you absolutely cannot, should not forward it on to others. And those were two messages that teen said, we really feel like there's this void that we're not hearing these two things that are actually really, really important. I think kind of going along with that, we heard, especially from middle school girls, a lot of stress about the pressure around being asked for nudes. And our impulse there as we really engaged with teen's voices was that they really need strategies to help them turn down requests when they're coming and to feel really confident and empowered around having the skills to navigate those inbound requests.

Carrie James: What Emily sharing is so important, because we often just say, don't sext. And that's the beginning and the end of the conversation. And teens told us we need to do better around this. We really need to lean into what's much more complicated than just a warning not to sext.

Jill Anderson: Some of this is really interesting and reminds me a little bit of some of the narrative around consent and how you're supposed to be teaching strategies, at least to younger kids. It's like emphasized so much about consent and having conversations about it. Almost feels like a lot of this can be extensions of that conversation in some way or an ongoing conversation.

Emily Weinstein: Absolutely. We write in our work about the importance of consent as a frame, and how actually the language of consent has been really missing from a lot of conversations adults have with teens about sexting. And once we reintroduce it seems so obvious how some of the messages we were sending fall short and what else we might need to say.

Jill Anderson: You mentioned how teens have the same concerns that parents have, and I want to hear a little bit more about those concerns, because it doesn't seem super obvious, I think, as a parent, what they are.

Carrie James: One big area for this is the digital footprint. A big misconception that a lot of adults have is that teens really aren't aware that the things that they post online can exist forever and come back to haunt them. But again and again, teens told us things like if you post one thing on social media, you can't take it back. Or if someone puts something out there about you, it's too late, it's out there or there's something, it's been saved, it's been stored and you have no way of deleting it. There really was this anxiety and this sense of in some ways like resignation that this is the reality of the world that they're growing up in. So teens really harbor a lot of those concerns that adults have, and yet we know really well that their awareness doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to have a perfect "clean" digital footprint.

So what's going on here? There are a number of different things at play of certainly the social pulls, the more sort of immediate weighty pull of posting something to please and impress one's peers. That's a big thing that's at play for young people. There is also, more generally, the reality that teens are constantly recording and posting things about other teens. So their peers are posting things about them contributing to their co-authors of their digital footprint. So to a certain extent, the digital footprint of an individual teen is literally out of their control, really challenging and anxiety producing for them.

Emily Weinstein: We heard from teens that adults often contribute to this in ways that really undercut the messages we tell them are so important. I'm thinking of a teen who is talking about how she can sit in class and her teachers and people at her school will tell her, "You should never post anything that someone else wouldn't want online. You have to be really thoughtful about what other people do and don't want shared." And then her school account is posting pictures from her play practice that all the teens are really embarrassed by. Their eyes are closed, they look awkward, they feel uncomfortable, and they're like, I don't want that content online. And I think it seems so benign and we've understandably, I think in many cases, schools wanting to share or camps or parents wanting to share proud moments, wanting to share student work. We often are in this position of uploading drama rehearsal pictures or a picture from a sports game.

And we don't even think about what we're modeling around this idea of getting people's permission or making sure that what we put about people online is what they want there. So the realities are just really complicated. And then you layer onto this, that not only are teens in this sort of record everything, collect receipts culture where they're documenting screenshoting, but we also have this reality that the technologies have made it such that content persists and really can get wrenched out of time and place and context and pulls toward completely new meanings in the future. And that is so hard. It's hard even for my adult brain to really imagine how my every text message I send privately be screenshotted and then potentially uploaded in the future. And then what would someone think about that in 15 years from now? And then you layer onto that the reality that perspective taking skills and other parts of cognition are actually still developing for adolescents.

We're asking them to kind of do this herculean task by imagining every possible audience of every possible digital message they send or every possible picture of them that's taken. And Carrie and I just sat with so much discomfort as we were grappling with that in our own work and what the implications are for what we actually can and should say to teens. We certainly don't think that adults should just stop saying to teens think about what you post. Of course, we think that is such an important message. We just saw the many ways it can fall short and the ways that it's just not often enough for teens who are living in this really complex digital landscape.

Jill Anderson: It sounds like it's a lot less about limiting taking screens away, banishing certain things from teens as it is more about having these conversations and developing strategies as a parent, as a caretaker, guardian, whatever, to level up in a way and be able to meet your teen where they're at.

Carrie James: Absolutely, Jill. I think making sure our teens understand that there are strategies that can use privacy settings are an obvious one, but there are less obvious ones, like ways in which teens can use private story groups on Snapchat and Instagram and they do in order to segment their audiences and create some sort of privacy for some areas where they want to let loose. So, knowing whether your teen is tapping some of those affordances is really important. But also recognizing that they're not full proof. And the teens should be aware and they are aware based on our research that there are risks.

And so we actually need to expect and anticipate missteps. We need to acknowledge the reality that there are things that our kids are going to post that they're not going to necessarily feel great about and we need to be there for them when they stumble with great empathy, with encouragement around a growth mindset. We can help teens sort of write their story even just for themselves about their missteps and why they happened, but importantly for others in the future who may find the digital evidence. So I think we just need to shift our mindset away from protecting our kids from the risks at all costs and acknowledging that they're going to make mistakes and how can we coach them through this really difficult reality.

Emily Weinstein: Your question also just makes me think about something we heard from teens, which is that it's really complicated to opt out of social media and it's not without cost. And Carrie and I were just in a conversation with a couple of teens last week and they were talking about how this reality of FOMO is part of life when they opt out and when they opt in. Both said that they were late to the social media game for a variety of reasons. Like their friends were all using social media before them. And they said, "When my friends were on social media and I was having this FOMO experience, like I was left out all the time because there were inside jokes that were happening, there was communication, there were plans, there were logistics, there were sources of shared connection that I just wasn't part of and it made me feel less close to my friends."

And then when I started using social media, you feel like this sense of FOMO because you see everything everyone's doing and you're not always part of it and you have to figure out how to navigate that. And then on top of that, we hear from teens that group chats are key to the FOMO landscape and the social dynamics. So even if you're not on social media, you can still get wrapped up in some of the digital complexity of social life. Which is all to say that I think that so often and understandably we want to just know, "Oh, if I just keep my kid off social media until X age, I'll be doing them a favor." And we came away with this sense that yeah, there are cases where that is true, that we are doing kids a big favor by helping them delay social media, but it can be really complicated and we have to pay attention to what is going on in their social circle and what the implications are.

One other thing here that's kind of interesting is when kids are a little bit on the younger end of their teen years, it's totally appropriate and in many cases expected for parents to be much more involved in their social media live. So maybe I'm actually doing Instagram with my 14 year old, and I'm seeing that that's kind of our agreement. She's going to start using social media and I have the password or she has access to it and we look at it together and we're sort of co-constructing meaning. And then as teens get older, it's less and less comfortable and appropriate to be involved in their social media experiences. And so if we have a 17 year old starting to use social media for the first time, they can end up in this position where they're getting a lot less of that kind of coaching and intervention.

I'm not advocating that 14 year olds parents should be reading their Instagram messages or anything like that, or that we should be putting kids on social media younger. But I just think that some of these tensions are so important for us to at least grapple with and recognize that there aren't really answers here.

Jill Anderson: I just wonder if there's something that we should be doing for the younger kids. We do hear about nine year olds being on TikTok and five year olds getting their smart watches and things. So is there something else we should do for younger kids?

Emily Weinstein: There's one really important thing that we can all be doing and that is really thinking about what we're modeling in our own tech habits. And I think about this a lot because I have a almost three year old and she is so aware of the moments when I am distracted by my phone. And I have really tried in doing this research, one study I got to work on really demonstrated and just quantified the impacts of what some researchers are calling techno fear. This is when parents are distracted, when people are distracted by their phones and they pull us from connections with each other.

And there's really some indication that at all ages kids notice that. And it has negative impacts on the quality of our parent child relationships. And so, one of the things that we can start doing is just taking stock, taking note of our own tech habits, what we're modeling, and then naming aloud the struggle that we feel and the strategies we're using. So in my case, even with a three year old that might look like saying, Oh sorry, I am feeling really distracted by my phone right now. I am going to go put it in the other room so that I can focus on the game we're playing together. And just recognizing that modeling that physical separation, modeling that it's okay to feel this pull and that there are things we can do because we really want to prioritize the relationship. That's a really powerful and simple intervention.

Carrie James: There are other aspects of modeling too, in terms of our digital lives and those have to do more with social media. And so we can model for our kids the kinds of real sort red flag moments. We can look at our own phones and say, Wow, I see something sort of troubling here and name that out loud. Or I'm noticing that everyone on my social media feed looks like they're living their best life. That can't really be true, can it? So really modeling that sort of pause point to wonder what's going on on the one hand. And on the other hand, to really notice that social media can be a highlight reel and really invite that critical lens. And we can do that from even when our kids pre-social media, because there's so much content that they're looking at. If they have an iPad or YouTube, they see stuff online even if they don't have their own social media accounts. So that modeling in a variety of different ways can start early.

Jill Anderson: Well, thank you so much Emily and Carrie. This was amazing. Lots of useful things in this conversation.

Emily Weinstein: Thanks for having us, Jill.

Carrie James: Thank you, Jill.

Jill Anderson: Carrie James and Emily Weinstein are principal investigators at Harvard's Project Zero. They are the authors of the recent book, Behind Their Screens, What Teens are Facing (and Adults Are Missing). I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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