Harvard researchers Emily Weinstein 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.