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Strengthening Teen Digital Well-Being

Tips for talking with teens about social media and thinking traps
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There has been a lot of attention on the negative impacts social media can have for teens and even pre-teens’ mental health. Emily Weinstein and Carrie James take what they describe as a “critically optimistic” view of tech. The co-founders of the new Center for Digital Thriving at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are well aware of the persuasive design tricks in smartphone apps that keep users engaged as long as possible while companies mine their personal data for profits, and of the need for long-term policy changes and regulation. However, the researchers are also convinced that educators and parents can play a vital role in empowering young people to safely navigate digital spaces. Weinstein and James have spent years researching teen tech habits. Now, their team is developing evidence-based practices that “are relevant to tech-specific pain points,” explains Weinstein.

One of those “pain points” is the way technology can aggravate negative thought patterns known, by psychologists, as cognitive distortions. In the virtual world, without the facial expressions and audio cues that we rely on during face-to-face conversations, communications can be easily misinterpreted (emojis can only help so much) and get teens, whose brains are still developing, fixated on false ideas. 

The Center for Digital Thriving team has identified seven common thinking traps that come up for many teens. Examples of the types of thoughts that can contribute to anxiety and other negative feelings include:

  • Mind Reading: When you assume you know what someone else is thinking or feeling. “My friend didn’t respond to my text so she must be mad at me.”
  • Labeling: When you use negative labels for yourself. “If my photo doesn’t get a lot of likes, it means I’m a failure.”
  • All or Nothing Thinking: When you make big generalizations and use words such as “always,” “never,” “nobody,” and so on. “Everyone I follow is happier than me.”
  • Personalizing: When you put the blame on yourself. “I get distracted by my phone because I don’t have any self-control.”
  • Negative Filter: When you focus only on the negatives (and ignore all the positives). “I can't stop thinking about that one negative comment.”
  • Fortune-telling: When you assume you know what will happen and it’s going to be bad. “I sent a text when angry and now my friend will never talk to me again.”
  • Shoulds: When you think about what you “should” (or “shouldn’t”) do or be like. “I shouldn’t care how many likes I get.”

How to help teens escape from digital thinking traps:

1. Teach teens to spot thinking traps

“Thinking traps are universal — we all have them — and even just starting to notice and name them is an intervention,” explains James. Among the Center’s resources are a glossary and a video, co-produced with KQED and Common Sense Education, that educators can use to help students identify their own or others’ thinking traps. 

2. Help them challenge traps in their own thinking 

After identifying a negative automatic thought (a thinking trap) help teens challenge it by asking: 

  • Are you 100% sure the thought is true? Is there any evidence that it might not be true? 
  • Are there any alternative explanations?
  • What would you tell a friend who had this thought or worry?

For example, the people a teen follows on social media may appear happier than them but perhaps they are only curating the most successful aspects of their lives and editing out all the rest. 

You might challenge the thinking trap “everyone I see on social media is happier than me” by:

  • Exploring the evidence: Am I sure they’re all as happy as they look on social media? 
  • Considering alternative explanations: Perhaps people are posting only their best moments?
  • Offering advice you might share with a friend: Remember that an online post never tells the full story.

3. Try out a new lesson

In partnership with the nonprofit Common Sense Education, the center has co-developed lesson plans for grades 6–12 to encourage students to reflect on how their own tech experiences are influenced by thinking traps and further steps they can take to protect their mental well-being while online. 

A group exercise named dot voting can help spark helpful discussions. Each thinking trap is listed on its own single sheet of paper and hung up on walls in the classroom. Students are then given stickers and told to vote on which traps would be important for younger teens to know about before receiving their first cellphones or using social media. They don’t have to use all of their stickers and they can place more than one (or all of them) on a single trap. After the vote, there is a time of reflection where students discuss what their votes reveal about how technology can shape people’s thinking.

Beck Tench, a senior researcher and designer with The Center for Digital Thriving and Sophia Choukas-Bradley, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, contributed to the development of these thinking traps resources.

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