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Teens in a Digital World

With empathy and curiosity, teachers and other adults can help teens navigate social media pressures, texting etiquette, viral challenges, and other elements of their very online lives
a young teenage girl staring at her phone

Harvard researchers and Carrie James are bridging the gap between adults and teens by providing a teen-level view of what it means to grow up digital today. 

In their new book, Behind Their Screens: What Teens are Facing (And Adults are Missing), they share data from a multiyear survey of more than 3,500 teens across the United States. Their research delves into complex topics like how teens are using social media to be politically active and engaged (and the challenges that arise), what they think about sexting, and the ways that their online behavior and friendship dilemmas change over time.

Weinstein and James — both principal investigators at Project Zero, based at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — argue that adults need to move beyond blaming screens and instead empathize with what it means to be a teen in a digital world. Educators, especially, can play a unique role in helping teens navigate their complex digital lives. 

“Teens were clear with us that they want and need more support around so many issues they’re facing behind their screens,” Weinstein says. “But even adults with the best of intentions — parents, teachers, coaches, and more — too often misunderstand what teens are up against and then miss the mark when they try to help.”

We spoke with Weinstein and James, who elaborated on their findings and shared ways in which educators can lead in helping teens navigate their digital worlds.

We hear a lot of parental concern about what to do when it comes to teens and social media. But what about the unique role of educators in this conversation?  

Carrie James: Educators can create space for young people to explore the real tensions and digital dilemmas they routinely face in their connected lives. Teens told us about everyday decision points that give them pause: When a friend is struggling and reaching out for support at all hours, what’s the right boundary between being an available, “good” friend and disconnecting for my own self care? In a digital context where performative posts and over-the-top comments are the norm, how can I be authentic? What should I do if someone I really like is asking me to share a sexy picture? Should I re-share violent videos to raise awareness about what’s happening in the world, even if the videos will be triggering or harmful to peers?

Questions like these, that reflect teens’ actual pain points, are powerful entry points for relevant learning and classroom discussion. The ways students navigate these situations in their real lives have implications for school climate, too. Over the last few years, we’ve been working closely with Common Sense Education to translate key insights from our research with teens into usable classroom lessons that lean into the thorny dilemmas they face. We’re especially proud of the Thinking Routines and Digital Dilemmas hub we co-developed with specific resources to address digital habits, social emotional scenarios, and civic dilemmas.

“Teens were clear with us that they want and need more support around so many issues they’re facing behind their screens. But even adults with the best of intentions — parents, teachers, coaches, and more — too often misunderstand what teens are up against.”

In recent years, we’ve witnessed a trend in “challenges” taking place on social media that are sometimes hurtful and disruptive to children’s lives or even to others. When do these trends become harmful, and when should teachers or school administrators act?

Emily Weinstein: It feels like there’s always a new and dangerous social media “challenge” to warn against, whether it involves sunburn art, climbing up milk crates, planking in dangerous places, or attempting to eat Tide Pods. As with so many things, social media contributes to the rapid spread of a new and, in this case, dumb ideas.

We shouldn’t wait for a new trend to emerge to act, though. We need to talk early and often about “challenges” and other kinds of harmful content and information students come across online. We want to have these conversations before students are in the position of trying to decide whether or not to take on the latest challenge themselves. Talk to students about how they make sense of content they see on their feeds: How do they think about viral challenges? But also, how do they make sense of emerging news and information? How do they decide if something is real or fake, wise or foolish, worth trying or important to avoid? 

When we open up conversations like these, we create opportunities for teens to identify for themselves where their go-to approaches might be falling short — leaving them misinformed or even at risk. From there, we can support needed skills and the dispositions to be alert to digital misinformation, dares, and more — and to make careful decisions. 

Your research recognizes the importance of adults using empathy when it comes to teens and social media. What does this practice look like for educators and school administrators as they try to balance distractions in the classroom?

James: We talk about the principle of “empathy over eye-rolling” because we’ve seen its power again and again. The impulse to roll our eyes when we see teens tethered to their phones or obsessing about a social media post is real. But our research gave us a deep appreciation for what teens are up against — these technologies collide with developmental impulses to explore their own identities, to connect with peers, to be liked in ways that are genuinely hard.

When we can authentically tap into empathy for what it’s like to grow up with social media and smartphones, it changes the tone and tenor of our conversations. It creates a natural impulse to get curious (“Why did you post that picture?”; “Why did you decide to livestream that fight from the parking lot?”). Again and again, we’ve found that students’ answers reveal dimensions of complexity that we as adults just hadn’t considered. We can and should hold clear boundaries about appropriate school behavior. But when our conversations, rules, and decisions are informed by a real sense of empathy and understanding, we’re more likely to design interventions that work.

"Talk to students about how they make sense of content they see on their feeds: How do they think about viral challenges? But also, how do they make sense of emerging news and information? How do they decide if something is real or fake, wise or foolish, worth trying or important to avoid?"

Do you see a role for social media in the classroom or in schools, particularly when it comes to civic engagement and activism?

Weinstein: Absolutely! One of our most surprising and interesting set of findings connects to the complex tensions around civic activism and social media. Our research captured a profound shift over the last almost decade in the ways teens experience politics online. Teens in 2013 told us being political online was optional. Now, that’s no longer the case. Today it can feel expected and essential — and what’s harder, there are so many ways to get it wrong. Teens can be “punished” by peers for expressing the “wrong” opinion on an issue, or for sharing the “right” perspective on an issue at the wrong time because another issue is more urgent. Posting “regular” content, like pics from hanging out at the beach, when a national crisis is unfolding can be grounds for being called out of touch, and even for being cancelled. 

If we think about the role of schools in preparing students to become engaged citizens, it’s obvious we can’t ignore the ways social media is a facet of civic engagement that requires attention as part of civic learning. There are obvious topics, like misinformation and filter bubbles. But there are also less visible puzzles that teens face on social media where the civic and interpersonal collide: Teens told us that friendships can be at stake based on what they do or do not say online about hot button issues, from Black Lives Matter to abortion rights to presidential politics. 

We’ve tackled some of these issues in collaboration with our colleagues at Common Sense. They have a few brand new lessons that lean into digital civic dilemmas, including cancel culture, conspiracy theories, and algorithms. 

How can educators help teens develop agency in their digital lives? Why is this important?

James: In so many areas of digital life, we saw evidence from teens of a struggle to feel and to be in control. Examples teens shared include when they are told to take care of their digital footprints, but they can’t prevent peers from posting things they would never want online; when someone asks for nudes and they feel like every decision including saying “no” is a lose-lose for reasons adults may not recognize; when they care about a struggling friend but also want to disconnect. And the list goes on. 

Digital agency is an undercurrent in many of the struggles we heard young people describe. This is notable because of the connection we know exists between feelings of agency and overall well-being. People cope better with stressful issues when they believe they have some agency and control. 

When we talk directly with students about tech-related dilemmas and struggles, we create the occasion to build skills, strategies, and confidence for our students to manage situations that arise in their real lives. 
An educator we interviewed in the course of our research captures the spirit of what we’re looking to support — specifically, teens’ decision-making “at 10 o’clock on a Saturday night.” This can mean having go-to language to respond to a snap from a romantic interest asking for a nude or to kindly (but firmly) set a boundary with a friend whose texting has become overwhelming.

The reality is that so many of the ways we currently approach digital life in our schools and in our classrooms fall short. We’re not leaning into today’s challenges, and as a result we’re not meeting them. But this doesn’t have to be the case. When we better understand what our students are facing in their connected lives, we’re better positioned to meet their actual needs. 

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