What adults are missing about teens’ smartphone use

In response to a growing understanding of social media’s impact on teens and adolescents, the Senate Commerce Committee advanced two bills last month aimed at protecting young people online. The proposed legislation is part of the fallout from revelations about internal Facebook research showing the company knew its platforms can exacerbate teen mental health issues. 

In a new book called “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults are Missing)” Harvard University researchers Emily Weinstein and Carrie James reveal more about the complex issues of today’s digital world by going straight to the source: teens themselves. 

“We have spent the last few years doing research with more than 3,500 teenagers,” said Weinstein. “The stories that they were telling us not only stopped us in our tracks, but they made us rethink our own assumptions, and we realized that so much of what adults assume teens are facing or assume it’s like to be a teenager today actually misses the mark.”

Click the audio player above to hear Weinstein’s conversation with “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal. The following is an excerpt from the book.

Oleg Shupliak, "Double portrait of Van Gogh," 2011
Oleg Shupliak, “Double portrait of Van Gogh,” 2011

At first glance, the image above just looks like a bearded man. You may even recognize the man as the artist Vincent Van Gogh. But if you shift your perspective a bit, you’ll see that Vincent’s nose is also a person sitting in a field and his ear is the wide-brimmed hat of a girl in a flowing dress. His eyebrows are the rooftops of buildings in the distance.

What does this have to do with teens and social media? In short: there’s more than at first meets the eye.

Over the last decade, we — Emily and Carrie — have studied teens’ digital lives. Our team at Harvard Project Zero has had incredible access to the ins and outs that are often hidden from adults’ view. Time and again, our research has shown there is more than meets the eye about teens and social media. Our latest research reveals surprising, important gaps between adults’ common assumptions and teens’ realities. Just a few examples:

Digital afterlife. Adults often assume teens are oblivious to the ways their digital lives could come back to haunt them later in life. With the aim of protecting teens, we double down on messages like, “What you post lasts forever” and “Your digital footprint stays with you for life.” But teens’ digital missteps happen for other reasons. Plus, posts aren’t always in teens’ control. Digital documentation and sharing are constant and other people perpetually upload and tag content without permission.

Digital habits. Adults assume teens are reluctant to part with their phones or turn off notifications because they are “addicted.” Design features compel ongoing use. And teens’ developmental vulnerabilities amplify effects well beyond what adults often see. But teens also describe how friendships are on the line. Disconnecting means being out of the loop socially, risking being seen as rude or, worse, being unavailable for a struggling friend. These burdens are in constant tension with parents’ messages to “get off your phone.”

Digital activism. Some adults worry about teens facing backlash for speaking up online about civic issues yet fail to appreciate pressures teens face that make staying silent feel just as risky. While many adults dismiss digital activism as shallow and easy, teens feel the stakes for the issues they care about and for their social lives and reputations. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement brought to the fore powerful opportunities for civic expression on social media alongside pressures to post, concerns about performativity, and harsh social consequences for mispost.

Digital upsides. Adults assume that screen time undercuts “meaningful” opportunities for healthy relationships and other pursuits. In some cases, it does. But the “screen time is wasted time” mindset is a barrier to seeing positives. Online gaming — from Minecraft to Fortnite — offers real opportunities for necessary social connection and play. Apps can be used to tap interests, as on “BookTok,” a subcommunity of TikTok, where teens source book recommendations and describe their favorite series. Zoom, Facetime, and even Discord servers are used for mutual homework and study support. And there are many more examples that adults miss.

There are good reasons for the misses. Adults (ourselves included) are often balancing instincts to protect young people’s present well-being and future lives in a world that is starkly different from the one in which we grew up.

Excerpted from “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing) by Emily Weinstein and Carrie James. Reprinted with permission from The MIT Press. Copyright 2022. 

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