Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing)
Drs. Emily Weinstein and Carrie James are Principal Investigators at Harvard Project Zero, where for over a decade, they’ve researched youth and technology. They chase answers to questions like, “How do today’s technologies shape teens’ lives and development? What’s hard for them and why? How can adults better support kids who are growing up with unprecedented connectivity?”
Drs. Weinstein and James direct the Digital Dilemmas study and the Reimagining Digital Well-being project. They are also passionate about developing resources to support schools and families in rethinking digital citizenship, including through their longtime partnership with Common Sense Education. Their new book is Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing).
Let’s dive in!
Scroll down to read the full episode transcribed.
What You Will Learn:
- The pressures our teens feel to take a stance online about current events.
- The subtle ways teens engage in cyberbullying.
- Why do our kids feel like they can’t just turn off their phones when someone’s being mean to them?
- What adults misunderstand about what it’s like to try and be a good friend in an age of constant connectivity.
- What the term “technoference” means, and how does it affect our parent-child relationship?
- How parents can pivot from the referee role and become more like a coach where the role is to be alongside your teen.
- Why technology and screen time is not the enemy and why it’s more about how each individual kid is using their screens.
- What does it mean to say social media is an “amplifier?”
- Some of the parents’ assumptions about screen time aren’t necessarily true.
- The friendship and empathy ties that keep our kids on their phones.
Where you can find Carrie and Emily:
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And here is the episode typed out!
Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you were failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone, and you have come to the right place.
Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.
I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our families and impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and to become more of the mom and the woman that you want to be, welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.
Sheryl: Emily and Carrie, welcome to The Moms of Tweens and Teens podcast. I’m so excited to have you both on the show.
Emily: Thanks for having us. We’re so happy to be here.
Carrie: Yeah, it’s so great to be here. Thank you, Sheryl.
Sheryl: Oh, you’re welcome. I’m very excited to talk about your book that is coming out on August 16. “Behind Their Screens, What Teens are Facing.” I love this title. Let’s just kick it off by talking about what led you to write the book.
Emily: Carrie and I have been studying teens and screens for over a decade. And we had this amazing opportunity over the last few years, and we ended up with this treasure trove of data. We collected insights about what it feels like for teenagers to grow up with technology from more than 3500 middle and high schoolers across the US.
As we started poring over the data, we just knew that we were going to have to write a book to share what we were hearing. Because even after a decade of doing this research, what we saw in the data, the stories that teens were sharing, really surprised us. And so we wrote this book to help break down what’s myth, what’s reality, and ultimately, how to have better conversations with the teens in your life.
Carrie: Can I jump in and add it’s a really novel and exciting part of doing this research? We use some pretty traditional methods. So we started out with a big survey of, as Emily said, 3500 us across the US. But the different thing that we did, and this was really new to us, is that we recruited youth teams to be on our research team.
We recruited a Youth Advisory Council so that we could work alongside teens and interpret the data with them to make sure that we really understood the pain points that we saw being described and really understood what teens thought, like the stories and perspectives teens thought adults most needed to hear.
And that was truly transformative for our work. I have to say. We often reflect that we’re really proud of this book. But we’re also really proud of how doing this research has really changed us. We won’t go back in terms of doing research the old way. We will always involve young people in our research as much as we can.
Sheryl: Wow. Yeah, I read that in the book. How did you even find that? The questions were very different than what you would have asked that they were asking,
Emily: Without a doubt. And especially because we had when we were doing our teen advisory groups, we had facilitators who were in between the teen and young adult years, one who had just finished high school and another who was in college, and the things that they picked up on to ask to follow up questions about whether it was a group chat dynamics, and how the name of a group chat could change and signal who’s in and who’s out and the ramifications for your offline social group.
Or certain questions about sexting culture and how it actually felt to teens. They just thought to ask so many questions that we may not have. And then involving teens in the interpretation just truly changed what we saw in the stories and what we understood about why certain things were so hard, why you can’t just turn off your phone when someone’s being mean to you and move on why and what adults misunderstand about what it’s like to try and be a good friend in an age of constant connectivity. So many, many, many different things that we didn’t even think to ask before we started.
Sheryl: Yeah. How exciting. I think this book is so needed because it does bridge the gap. There are so many misconceptions we have. I want to read one of your quotes. You say, “There’s value to table our assumptions long enough to ask, listen and look anew.”
I just love that. I think that as parents, that is so important for us to look and listen and try to see things from our kid’s perspectives. And you’re both parents now, and you’re both moms.
Emily, I love hearing about how social media was with you growing up, and you have a two-and-a-half-year-old that you say doesn’t have TikTok. I thought that was funny.
And then Carrie, you have two tech-loving kids, 16 and 12. I would love to hear from each of you how this changed the way that you’re navigating your own technology and the way that you’re parenting.
Carrie: Do you want to jump in first? We’ll start from the early childhood years,
Emily: There have been so many interesting things. So one of them is that I have thought a lot about how hard it is for all of us to resist the pull to our screens. And one of the things that we hear so often from teens is that they really want our undivided attention, even when they’re really struggling to give it to us in return. And their own tech distraction is not an indicator that they don’t notice or care about us being distracted by devices.
And that’s not just teens. That’s true, really, across the lifespan. I just worked with one of my colleagues on a survey. We found that about 50% of the teens we surveyed in the US said that their parents were distracted by tech in ways that undercut the quality of their parent-child relationship.
I think one of the big ones that researchers call this “technoference” when we have that kind of tech disruption, and I have really started taking stock of my own impulse for “technoference” and recognizing that there are times when I can’t really resist the urge by just trying, and so I need strategies.
Like, “Okay, I’m going to leave my phone in another room, so it’s out of reach,” or I’m going to pick times when I’m really going to lean into play and not have the technology distractions be even part of the potential equation. So that I’m not just relying on my willpower or my habits to get me to parenting that aligns with my values, but actually recognizing this is really hard and really important.
Sheryl: Wow, I love that. Yeah, having strategies that are really helpful to me, too, because I’ve been called out on it as well, mostly by my youngest. Working out of the house, I will be hyper focusing, and I’ll be working, and I’ll say something, and she’ll go, “Well, Mom, you’re constantly on your computer.” And then I felt so sad.
But just like you said, Emily, I’m not thinking, because she’s on her screens, I’m not really thinking that maybe she’s being so impacted because it’s during work hours, but she was feeling like she’s trying to talk to me, and I’m not listening, and I’m like, “Oh, I got to get this done.”
And that shows up in so many ways, throughout the day, with just being on our technology. So, having strategies and being more intentional.
Carrie, how about having two teens, not quite as your youngest is 12, but a tween and a teen? How has it impacted all the research you’ve done?
Carrie: I so relate to what both of you just shared about the pull to the screen. I have to say I worry about what I was modeling for my kids. And they can be pretty articulate about when I’m not paying attention and really express that I’m not giving them undivided attention.
When on the other hand, I asked them to do that. So I think it got really hard, especially during the pandemic, when we were all at home. I tend to work at home a lot anyway. And when my kids are around, and when we cross the threshold of five o’clock, and I don’t walk away, I feel that magnetic pole to respond to one more email and just name that for my kids.
Like, “this is really hard. My mind is still over here, it’s on the computer, but I see you like literally standing in front of me.” My 12-year-old will take my hand and pull me away from my like pseudo office space to the dining room table. That’s incredibly powerful to have that experience. So, I’m mindful, and I tried to adopt some of the strategies along the lines of what Emily described, but it’s hard. It’s a constant battle.
The other thing I’ll say about my parenting is that I think, in some ways, it really helps to be a social scientist. Especially for this kind of work, I’m a qualitative researcher, and I love to hear people’s stories. I love interviews. That’s the kind of method that I love to use. And so does Emily, but asking questions and being curious is a big part of my job.
And so the extent to which I can bring that over into my parenting, then I feel really successful. And so that really goes along with this idea of really trying to suspend our assumptions and be curious, really really understand what my 16-year-old is grappling with when I see her with a furrowed brow, and she’s looking down at her phone. Not to rush over immediately and look over her shoulder because it may be private, and she may not be ready to tell me but to let her know I’m there.
And then really ask those open-ended questions that pull out her experience. One thing that we did in the book, or in this research that was so powerful is when we ran our youth advisory sessions at the end of each session. We would ask the same question, which was, what do you wish adults understood about this topic? And the answers were incredible. I tried to keep that in mind with my kids, trying to understand what it is that Ella most wishes that I understood about this particular struggle. And how do I get to that kind of understanding?
Sheryl: Wow, you said so many good things in there. Just even the first thing you were talking about, I was thinking, it’s not just getting our kids away from devices, and that technology is the enemy. It’s also joining them in that and looking at ourselves and what we’re modeling and how we’re addicted to it. If you want to use the word “addicted.” But how it pulls us and wears us.
I love that your daughter was clearly taking you by the arm. Like, “Mom, come be with me.” I love that. And then the second part that you were talking about, understanding versus you talk about how we just make it more about the screens? And versus what are we missing, we’re like making it more about the screen time.
Emily: We talk about this idea of how adults are often in this role of being the referee around technology, where we’re just constantly blowing the whistle when kids are over screen time or calling them out when something goes wrong. There’s a misstep, and there is actually so much power in recognizing that we can pivot out of the referee role and into being more like a coach where our role is to really be alongside them and to help them play their best and also recognize that they’re going to need are strategizing around the hard plays and that they’re not going to always get things right.
But we’re in it with them, not just for one game, but for many. And so we have to protect that relationship. I think if we can get ourselves out of that referee mode and into that coaching mindset, we end up having more interesting conversations about why certain things are hard and what they need to be able to really rise to the occasion.
Sheryl: How have you, Carrie, found that helpful? Has that changed for you? Because my experiences are parenting a lot out of fear? We’re afraid a lot, and we’re feeling disconnected from our kids. And we’re not setting a good example for them by having them get off their phones, and then they’re resistant to getting off their phones, and then it becomes a power struggle.
So how would you encourage parents to be able to look at it like Emily was saying more from a coaching standpoint? Has that changed for you from the research on how you’re better able to listen and be curious?
Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. Just to add another layer here, there’s a concept in the research, which sounds really complicated, but we can boil it down in a more simplistic way. It’s called “differential susceptibility.” And so that’s the idea that people, we’re talking about kids today, kids are differently susceptible to the risks of anything of like binge drinking or getting into a car accident, but the same for technology.
I think it’s really important, and there’s like a really helpful metaphor in the research. Social Scientists refer to those different risks by talking about orchids versus dandelions. So if we think about that floral metaphor, orchids are much more sensitive to an array of conditions. My orchid in the kitchen is not doing well right now. I know it’s because the weather just got really crazy. And it’s just overall really sensitive.
Whereas dandelions are hardier flowers that can weather an array of conditions. And if you think about people, we’re kind of similar. You may know some people, and especially when we think of our kids, who are more dandelion-like, they’re able to weather challenges and let things roll off their backs. I have one kid who’s more of a dandelion, and I have another kid who’s more of an orchid.
That orchid is much more sensitive to anything I say, any strategy I enact. So what that’s taught me in terms of implementing this kind of approach to coaching is that it’s going to look different. The way I coach my older child and the way I coach my younger child.
My older child is an open book. And it’s not that she doesn’t have her orchid moments, she is sensitive about some things, but in general, she lets things roll off of her. And we can talk about things. And so my approach is asking a lot of open-ended questions and being really curious. It works really well with my older child, but not so much with my younger child, who is much more sensitive, and who doesn’t communicate well.
I have to take a different approach. And that approach typically involves me narrating out loud some of the things that I’m thinking, some of the things that I’m struggling with so that I know, even if she can’t speak to me and speak to some of her pain points, I know she’s listening, because I hear her later come back to me with certain things. And there’s tremendous power in that. In that sort of narrating move.
Sheryl: Yeah. Do you have anything to add to that, Emily?
Emily: It’s so much fun for me to hear Carrie describing this because we have worked together for over a decade. So we have gone through a lot of these different stages of watching each other, not only in our workspace but also we’re in each other’s homes on Zoom, we worked for so much of the pandemic, but we also know each other’s kids and families really well. I just want to add that she really means it. Carrie actually does all of this in practice, and I watch it play out.
And it’s just the point that Carrie made about this idea of orchids and dandelions, which we see as such an important reality across studies on tech impacts. So you could have two kids who look at the exact same content on social media and have completely different reactions to the content. And one of the things that we often miss when we just talk about screen time is we fail to even attend to the fact that kids are spending their screen time in really different ways.
We also failed to recognize that even when they’re looking at the same content, kids interpret it in really different ways and feel really differently as a result. And so one of the really big things that our research has pushed us toward is this need to move beyond screen time towards more focused attention on what kids are doing on their screens, what they’re not doing because of it, and how they’re feeling as a result.
Carrie: Yeah, we often say that we like to think of social media, in particular, as an amplifier. So the question we should be asking is, what is it amplifying for a particular kid? In some cases, what they choose to look at and do on social media, plays into their strengths, and it supports those strengths. And in other cases, it really taps into their vulnerabilities and becomes – we talked about comparison quicksand and the book and how Instagram can be a home for those kids who make a lot of social comparisons where that’s a point of vulnerability for them.
So the question is, what is this activity, social media or gaming amplifying? For that individual kid? And how can we help to recalibrate it so that it’s really playing to their strengths and supporting them and navigating some of the risky stuff that’s creating problems?
Sheryl: So if we’re just focusing on the phone or the social media and wanting to get them off, we’re missing our kid. We’re not really seeing them, and we’re missing opportunities to connect with them and really know them. Did you find a connection between amplifying and their struggles? So, for example, if a kid scrolling through Instagram a lot, looking at pictures that they maybe could get more focused on, like body image issues, and be comparing themselves and were there any of those connections that the research showed?
Emily: To some extent, I think we do see there is this sort of nudge in the research, this move towards recognizing that there might be typologies. Like you might have a type of person who has a certain vulnerability. So if you tend toward comparison and you follow a lot of body image-oriented content that that’s likely amplifying body image insecurities for you.
But one of the things that we know to be true is that even when kids share a particular vulnerability or have a similar struggle, they can have very different experiences on social media and on their screens. This came out so clearly.
I got to work on a study a couple of years ago, interviewing adolescents in a psychiatric inpatient unit. They had all recently been struggling with suicidal ideation. And even in that really high-risk group, there was so much variation when we asked them about their social media experiences. For some kids, it was so clearly exactly what your assumptions might be that they had experienced cyberbullying or hostility, or they were engaging with depressive genic content that was making them feel much worse.
For other kids, that was just not the case. They were really struggling with their mental health. But social media had been a really powerful point of connection to cousins who really cared about them and gave them support or to see positive aspects of their identities. And they were pretty clear that it was very positive.
And then some kids were in the middle – they had positives and negatives, and that kind of happened in different quantities at different moments. And then still, other kids were kind of like, why are you asking me about social media? I have all these real struggles, but it’s not about technology. It’s about these other issues I’m struggling with.
I think that was just a small study. But actually, maybe more than almost any other study for me really opened my eyes and made me feel so convinced that the details really matter. And that if we just try and keep kids’ experiences with tech in really broad strokes, we miss a lot of what is actually hard for them and why and what we need to do if we then want to help them move forward from that point.
Sheryl: Yeah. Really good. I know the listeners are like, “wow, this is so helpful.” So can we speak to some of your chapters because there are pain points that you picked? And so I would love you to share. You already have shared some of our assumptions, but about specific topics. So one of them that you talk about is mental health. So that’s kind of what you were touching on with social media. Is this as big of a concern as we worry it is? What were the teenagers saying? And what are some of our assumptions that maybe aren’t true?
Emily: Well, for a good reason, many of us are deeply concerned about trends in adolescent mental health. So I think we just have to start there. And it’s completely understandable. We think it wise to be asking questions about the role social media is playing. Carrie mentioned that the best way to think about social media and mental health is to think about social media as an amplifier.
And then to ask this essential question, which is, “what is it amplifying for this specific kid?” What we saw in our research is that what’s hard really varies in important ways. Tuning into your particular kids’ strengths and vulnerabilities, their current stresses, and then asking questions like, “How is social media making those things better or worse for you” really helps us understand this likely amplifying body image issues, friendship, insecurities, self-regulation struggles, so that you’re not getting enough sleep at night, hard time pulling yourself away. So you’re not doing your homework.
What’s hard really varies. And so, we want to try and understand what the particular challenges are so that we can then figure out how to help. And that doesn’t mean there are no commonalities. I just named a few big ones like social comparison, body image, and self-regulation around habits. But we need to know which of those are most relevant and when and why how kids are spending time on their screens, like which apps are they using, but also how are they feeling on those different apps and why? Those are really important variables.
Carrie: Something that is a little bit implicit in what Emily just shared that I’ll make a little more explicit is through doing this research – we’re researchers, people ask us, what do you study? We study teens in tech, so we study technology, but I’m working especially so closely with teens. And coming to these insights like what Emily just shared really pushed us towards a, it seems like a small pivot, but it’s a really meaningful pivot.
So rather than, adults often start with questions like, what is tech doing to kids? Like, is Instagram making you depressed, is TikTok pulling you into a rabbit hole, and you’re addicted, and you’re wasting your time? We start with the tech. And what kids told us, again and again, is like, “What’s going on with me? What do I feel good about? What am I experiencing?” The good stuff, the hard stuff.
And then how is technology making it better or worse? In some cases, it’s better cases, and in many cases, it’s both. And it really depends on the use and the content. But that pivot of focusing on our kids’ experiences and their overall mental health. And then locating where technology and their use of technology sit within that is really important and really powerful.
Sheryl: It’s so much more focused on the relationship. Like, “how are you? How are you feeling? How are you doing?” And, of course, you can’t hit him up with all those questions all at once because they can end up shutting down. But being concerned about how they’re really doing. And then, once they feel like, “you really want to know how I’m doing.”
You talk a lot about judgment in the book. And coming off not being judgmental, not approaching it being critical, that chances are, they’re going to be more open if we’re really caring about their heart. And coming at their technology through how they’re doing and how they feel being on Snapchat or Instagram. Yeah, I love that.
Emily: We certainly understand that impulses like the cringe watching a 52-second take of a TikTok dance or the eye roll. It’s something that just seems completely like, “it’s just social media.” But we just found again and again that those instinctive reactions, even when they’re reasonable, they undercut the relationships and conversations that kids actually are dying to have with us.
And one of our biggest takeaways from, I think, all the research was that kids really want adults to step up. And that so often, with the best of intentions, we shut down conversations instead of opening them because we have so many assumptions.
We assume that tech is all bad, or we assume that “it’s just Snapchat, don’t stress about it.” But actually, one of the things that Carrie and I really started seeing is that even when the forms of a particular struggle look really new and different, the feelings are actually familiar. And when we can tap back into our own memory of what it felt like to be 15 and find out that our friends had just left us out of a plan that they all had together. We don’t get so lost in like, “Why do you care if those three people Venmo charged to other people for movie tickets, it’s just Venmo. Like, don’t focus on it.”
But the reality is, what’s gone on is that your teenager has just realized that their friends were all hanging out at the movies, and they weren’t invited. Or they’re on Snapchat. And they see that their friend’s avatars on the SNAP map are all together in one place. And we’re like, “oh, it’s just Snapchat, just like put your phone away,” instead of actually remembering that it really stinks when you’re the only one who isn’t part of the hangout or whatever it is.
There’s so much new social information for teens to analyze and worry about, like, the idea of this or your social life analytics, just being always available. And the middle school lunch room is on the screen in front of you all the time, constantly updating. I think we just came away with such a deep sense of empathy. And so hearing that teens wanted adults to step up and wanted them to understand what was going on. We just felt such a strong desire to help, as you said earlier, bridge the gap so that all adults really feel like, “I want to do this. I can do this, and I’m ready.”
Sheryl: Yeah, not assuming they don’t want to talk because sometimes I think with teenagers, you feel like, “oh, they don’t really want to talk to me,” but that’s not the case what they were saying. They want their parents to engage and talk to them and step up.
Emily: We often hear from teens that one of the reasons that they might hide or have an instinctive reaction to not share what’s on their mind is because either they’re worried that it’s going to just confirm their parents’ worst assumptions about technology if they talk about the hard stuff, or that their parents will double down on rules or restrictions, or a say, “spend less time on your screen, or this is why I don’t want you to have TikTok.” And so those things also tend to just shut down conversations so that teens are almost self-monitoring rather than really opening up.
Sheryl: Yeah. What did you find that teens want their parents to know? As far as friendships go? There were assumptions we made. And there’s a real tie between friendships, and what’s really going on that we don’t even realize is the reason that they’re on their phone so much. Carrie, do you want to speak to that?
Carrie: One of the big things that Emily and I often zero in on when we look at the data is really understanding that adults have this impulse to say, “get off your phone, like you’re too tethered to your device.” Like making the assumption that being connected to technology is getting in the way of human connection and relationships, that it’s undercutting empathy.
But actually listening to teens, what we really heard loud and clear is that it’s actually a sense of empathy for others that often keeps them tethered to their phones. So Emily alluded to this earlier, but one of the things we’ve learned is, from listening to teens is how hard it is to be a good friend, especially when you have a close friend or more than one close friend who’s really struggling. Emotionally.
Now we’re all really alarmed about the adolescent mental health crisis. And what that means is that even if a given teen is not personally struggling, they almost certainly know someone in their network who is. And if they’re a close friend, or even if they’re not, they’re distinct puzzles and dilemmas that come up. If you’re a close friend, you might feel like I have to be there, or, in our research, heard a quote from a 14-year-old who said, “I need to stay connected. Because otherwise, if I’m not there, I won’t be able to prevent my friend from harming themselves or worse.”
A 14-year-old is expressing that sense of obligation to be there for a friend. That’s empathy and action. And if you think about how that it plays out, when you have that 14-year-old feeling that great sense of commitment to their friend and their parents, and can’t you just get off your phone, you can really imagine what that tension feels like a life or death situation.
So tuning into some of those details was really powerful for us. And it’s not even with close friends. Emily mentioned before the tremendous amount of social information we have. So a lot of that is about who you’re hanging out with and who you left out of a particular social dynamic.
But the other layer of social information is increasing, young people are sharing cries for help, or they’re sharing the details of their struggles with larger audiences of peers via like Instagram and Snapchat stories. And if so, if you don’t know a kid well, and you can see that they’re struggling, you really feel puzzled about what to do. So you really feel this sense of worry, maybe even panic, especially as the posts become more and more explicit, suggesting suicidal thinking.
But your relationship with that person isn’t necessarily such that you can direct message them and find out what’s going on. So kids were sent with a lot of puzzles about how to be good friends, both their close friends and their larger peer group.
Emily: Even in a much less kind of intense space. We heard so much from teens that just the everyday sort of burdens of friendship are so on their minds. So you think about things like a big one that came up we talked about in the book about performing closeness about this idea that you need to have your friendships on display as part of saving face and projecting a positive reputation.
And what that can look and feel like is I post on social media, and my expectation is that all of my friends will immediately flock to my post and publicly exclaim how much say how much they love me, add flames to say I’m on fire, and tell me I’m the most beautiful and part of that is certainly for me, but actually a huge part of it is for the public and for me to be able to show my entire peer group and network that I have friends and people who love me.
And because of that, there are all these burdens that teens feel around being a good friend in a public enough way. And obviously, this creates all these questions around what’s authentic and what’s performative. And, knowing what’s real is really hard. And sometimes, knowing what’s real is not even what teens are most focused on. It’s just really being sure that they are going to seem like they have friends or that they have people who will have their backs.
Sheryl: It’s a lot of pressure. I feel heavy and sad as I hear it, and then for our kids not to feel like they can talk about that. But you are also in your research, giving them this place where they could come and talk and express what that feels like. Did you find that it was helpful to them to be able to be in this forum you have?
Emily: Carrie and I work at a research center called Project Zero at Harvard. And we have a thinking routine that we often use, so we’re within the Graduate School of Education. So we do a lot of translational research focused on supporting learning and thinking in all different contexts across the lifespan, especially for kids and teens.
We have this thinking routine, a project zero, that we use all the. And so the idea is “I used to think something, and now I think,” and sometimes we use a variation “that’s I used to think and now I really think,” so you don’t actually have to have changed your perspective. Maybe you strengthened it, but sometimes our perspectives evolve or pivot.
And just for fun, at the end of our teen advisory work, we asked the teens to use them. There are blanks to that prompt, like “what was something you used to think and what was something you now think?” And a theme that just came up, again and again, was this idea captured by one teen. “I used to think I was alone in my feelings about social media. And now I know I’m not.”
And we did not expect the teens being part of the research would be an intervention. But for sure, it was because actually, what we learned was that teens really valued having a space to talk to each other. And I think to us, but it wasn’t us, it was just frankly, like the space to talk about these issues in a nonjudgmental way and actually hear that the things that were hard for them were not hard just for them.
And feeling this sense of sort of common humanity around the experiences that can otherwise feel so isolating was so powerful. I think something that Carrie and I have held on to as we move forward and really think about how to create more spaces for kids to have that feeling of “I’m not alone in this. I’m not alone. And what’s hard for me.”
Carrie: Yeah, we often say that the most helpful help for teens doesn’t come from adults. Teens really love to be in conversation with one another, and they have amazing advice for each other. And as adults, it doesn’t mean that we don’t have value. We certainly play a role and have conversations.
But one powerful thing you can do is intentionally create spaces for young people to talk to one another about their pain points and their issues and their strategies, what’s hard in general, how tech amplifies that, and how tech can help in different ways. And that was the real power that we saw on or use advisory councils.
Sheryl: Wow. Such important, powerful work. And for kids not to be alone in their heads, thinking they’re the only one being able to talk about it. Yeah, so powerful. What were a few of the other things that they wanted?
You write about sexting in the book and cyberbullying and how they feel about politics and what they’re reading. Do you want to speak on just a couple of those because we talked some about mental health and cyberbullying? What do we need to know about that? That we don’t get as parents?
Emily: Okay, well, maybe cyberbullying and activism, if we just have time to tell you two, I think are the two that are two that feel really important to both of us right now. So maybe I’ll start with cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is obviously on a lot of adults’ radars. We’re worried about the way that aggression is playing out. And we’re worried about cyberbullying. It’s not we’re alert to that issue. But one of the things that we really heard from teens, again and again, was that they wished that adults would recognize that what’s hard for them in this aggressive landscape is actually a spectrum.
And it spans ambiguous acts that you’re like, “I’m not even sure if that was meant to hurt my feelings or not.” I’ll give you an example. Like, if someone posts a group picture from an event that you were at, and you were in the picture, but they crop you out. You err on the side, and they just kind of like crop you out. And you’re a teen. You can look at that post and be like, “Okay, so did they not want people to know that they were with me,” but maybe I looked really bad in the picture. And they were actually trying to do me a favor because they thought I looked really awkward.
It’s kind of ambiguous, or if they tag everyone in the picture but you, so they left you in the picture, but everyone else is tagged in, you’re not tagged? Is that just an oversight? Because they were tagging 14 people? Or is that something that was actually kind of meant as a hostile attempt to really hurt your feelings?
Those are just two. There are so many more examples. But if you think of the sort of these ambiguous acts that teens have to make a judgment call, like, “is it reasonable if this hurts my feelings? Should my feelings be hurt? Am I being too sensitive?”
Then there are more in the category of subtle jabs where they definitely know that the intention is to call them out or hurt their feelings. But there’s enough of a question mark that they know that the person has plausible deniability if they tried to take it to an adult. So sub-tweeting was an early way that this was talked about, but subbing might happen across platforms where I go on my story, and I say something like, “Don’t you hate it when someone shows up to your English class and says, blah, blah, blah.” And everyone in my English class knows exactly who I’m talking about. But I haven’t called you out by name.
So there’s this way that it’s a little less clear, it’s not unclear if we know, but it’s a little less clear, and certainly falls short of what adults would often define as cyberbullying and say warrants adult intervention. And then, of course, this sort of just keeps going. And it gets much more hostile to very overtly hostile call-outs and comments sections.
And so one of the key things that teens told us is that they wish that adults would recognize that cyberbullying isn’t the only thing that’s hard for them about social interactions on social media. And people can be mean and so many different ways. Like even a comment that’s like, “You’re so beautiful,” could be said, through gritted teeth, and really meant to tell you, “I’m watching you.” So really, cluing adults into the spectrum was something that teens just begged us, “Please help our parents understand that. It’s not just about when someone’s like so blatantly mean, and I’m not being overly sensitive. This stuff is really, really hard.”
Sheryl: Yeah, I can see that. It hurts and then feels like, “oh, maybe I better not even point it out or even talk about it because then it could become bigger. So I’m just going to hide and hold on to it. And not say anything about it.”
But just even that, in your mind, when you talk about was that on purpose? Was I cropped out on purpose? That goes on and can cause that anxiety.
Emily: And with so much posting, like if I see my friends posting from something they did without me, did they post it to hurt my feelings, or just without consideration of my feelings? That is really hard to try and judge when you are a teenager who’s still developing your perspective-taking skills, and it’s a hard question to begin with. So okay, that’s cyberbullying.
But I want to make sure that Carrie has time to weigh in on activism. Because this is another one that we really heard from teens, they felt like adults were missing a lot of what they were facing. And Carrie and I were in that category, for sure.
Carrie: Oh, absolutely. It’s interesting that we weren’t in that category because we didn’t know much about civics, activism, and social media. In fact, we’ve been studying that topic for a really long time. So over a decade ago, Emily and I were involved in a study that looked at how young people who were civically active use social media as part of that.
So we had some information and some expertise. I’ll say that back then, and this was around 2012 – 2013. The young people we interviewed told us about like the ways in which it was incredibly powerful and empowering to be able to use Twitter or Facebook to express your point of view and mobilize others.
They also talked about challenges. Of course, they talked about being dragged into arguments with people in discussions that got really toxic. The thing that was really interesting is at that time, using social media as part of their civic and political activities felt like optional or extra credit. So, it could be empowering.
But if it got too hard, you could continue doing your civic work, but focus mostly on offline forms of activism, organizing rallies and protests, and maybe using some other means to organize people to get there. I’m really skirting that part of social media and civic action. That is like having a voice for a wide audience. Okay, so that was back then.
To teens today, we really heard loud and clear that that is no longer the case. Today, speaking up on urgent issues can feel expected and even essential. And what we also heard is that there are so many ways to get it wrong. Teens tell us that their peers monitor who actually speaks up on timely issues, who speaks up and who doesn’t, about every issue, calling out anything that can be viewed as hypocritical or performative or offensive or insincere. It can go both ways.
One teen told us that in terms of posting about public issues, you feel scared to post something because you could really get it wrong. But you also feel obligated to post something so really stuck between a rock and a hard place. They also articulated how it’s not just peers who aren’t so close to you or maybe monitoring and criticizing what you’re doing on social media about timely issues, but also close friends and friendships are on the line.
And teens talked about breaking friendships over the presence or the absence of social media posts, and Black Lives Matter was one topic where this came up. The timing of posts matters, too. So we heard this incredible story from a teen about a huge scandal that unfolded at her high school because a team posted a beach selfie, which on any other day would have gotten a zillion likes and over-the-top praise. Those kinds of comments that Emily was speaking to earlier.
But it was the day after George Floyd was murdered. The comments section blew up with her friends defending her, but other teens arguing that she was completely out of touch and insensitive, and she’s frolicking at the beach and posting the selfie when there are urgent life and death issues unfolding across this country.
So we really heard more recently that where, when, and how teens post civically is under the microscope in ways that just kind of stopped us in our tracks that really surprised us as people who thought we understood what was going on in this space.
Sheryl: Wow, I did not. I didn’t realize that was happening. Because even when I was making the questions, I was like, “Oh, we don’t really need to talk about that one.” Because it was off my radar, and so this is new to me, as well, that they’re feeling all of that pressure.
I will say we’re very close to Highland Park, where the shooting happened on the Fourth of July. It’s like when one town over and my daughter had taken some pictures. We were at a parade in our town. And she had taken a picture, but like a week later, she posted it. But then she reached out to me, and she said, “Do you think that’s insensitive?”
You can’t even tell that it was the Fourth of July, but we had all her friends and all of her high school friends, and I thought she was overthinking that. And concerned about it.
Carrie: We can all experience these puzzles. I think for teens, given the moment in time, and they’re growing up and what peers think of them. And that validation that they seek and need is really important. It’s harder to put that in perspective and roll on.
We know as adults, we can get stuck there too. So we thought a lot about what this might mean for how as parents, we talk to our kids. One of the things that we often say is that adults really need a mind shift on this topic. We know we might say things and stand up for what we believe in, on the one hand, or on the other hand, stay off of social media in terms of political issues.
Both of those stances are really hard for teens right now because they’re getting a lot of pressure to say something about what they believe in. But they also know that it can be a train wreck, and they can be heavily criticized.
In the theme that we’ve been talking about throughout this conversation, we really advocate opening up conversations, where we get really curious about how civic and political issues are playing out in our teen’s worlds, really asking a lot of open-ended questions about how these issues show up. What kinds of dynamics and pressures do you feel? What does that feel like? And really compare them to our own stories, like the story that you just shared, Sheryl, are really relevant to that. And together, we can brainstorm and think through the next steps. So really, asking those open-ended questions and validating what’s hard can be a game changer in terms of protecting that relationship.
Emily: Sheryl, I love your story because it gets at something else that we often hear, which is adults just saying to kids, think before you post, and one of the things that we recognize is okay. That’s not enough. Because what should you be thinking about, you can do a lot of thinking.
And still, even if you’re thinking about your values, you might have values that are intentional, like “I want to feel connected, and show my family, and also I don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings. I care a lot about this issue. I care a lot about making sure that people know that I am committed to activism around this topic, and will this post somehow undermine it?”
I think that you’re leaning into showing up to have that conversation with your daughter and just recognize like, “Okay, we just have to talk through this. I want to help you do the things before you post, or think after you post,” Frankly, this is sometimes how it plays out. And showing up for that conversation is just so awesome. So I love that story.
Sheryl: Parents relate on a lot of different levels. I want to encourage them to get your book. It’s so enlightening and helpful. And to shift our mindset, as you’ve said, and be able to have those more important conversations that our kids desperately need us to be tuning in and understanding more of their world and what they go through. Is there anything else? What is one thing that you hope that parents would get from your book? And then let them know where they find you. Where do they find your book?
Carrie: I think it’s really important to say we’ve talked about a lot of the challenges that teens are facing, but we’re actually hopeful. Teens name the challenges, and they tell us what they’re going through. But they’re not just bystanders. We’re really impressed by the inventive and creative strategies they develop for navigating the hard stuff of their lives in general and networked life in particular.
And they are really motivated to lead successful, healthy lives with technology. As adults, we just need to figure out how to tap that motivation in ways that really help them thrive. And we often say our job as adults is to figure out two different things.
First, how can we tap that motivation? They have to live healthy lives with technology. And second, how can we create much better infrastructure around them, especially when we think about tech design and lobbying big tech companies in order to think to be more thoughtful about their designs, education, and what’s happening in schools in terms of supporting young people around these kinds of issues and challenges that we’ve made and regulation, regulation, like policy regulation of those big media companies.
Emily: I’ll underline and star everything Carrie just said. And just alongside, I’d say we talked about this principle of modeling over magic as being so valuable because the truth is, there is no magic wand that will undo the impact of the tech behaviors that we model day in and day out for our kids. And so, just really tuning into the what and how of the ways that technology is fitting into our families into our lives and how we can be the role models that they want and need. It feels like such an important piece of all of this, and we know it’s hard, and we are in this struggle with you. We will keep fighting this fight alongside you.
You can find us & on our book website https://www.behindtheirscreens.com/. There’s a lot of information there about the book, but also about the different research projects we run and more information on how and where to find us. We’re also both on Twitter. I’m at https://mobile.twitter.com/em_weinstein.
Carrie: I’m at https://mobile.twitter.com/@carrie_james.
Emily: And thank you so much, Sheryl, for having us. Such a privilege. We feel so fortunate.
Sheryl: Yeah, I have to mention one more thing. Project Zero. That’s a great website that you have, and all kinds of resources there. What’s the website? fair
Emily: http://www.pz.harvard.edu/. It’s an absolute treasure trove of resources, especially for teachers. So anyone who’s working in the education space has lots of amazing thinking routines. Like the one we mentioned, “I used to think, now I think.”
Also, we have a digital habits checkup that’s available for free as part of that resource toolkit. And we love the spirit of PZ, which is leaning into research topics and areas even when there is zero or very little known. And that spirit of trying to figure out how not to be daunted by the challenges of, in our case, ever-changing technology and the ever-changing ways that kids are using them. And instead of chasing the answers with innovative methods, a lot of curiosity has been so powerful for both of us.
Sheryl: Yeah. Well, thank you. Thank you, Carrie. And thank you, Emily. I wanted them to know about that website because I found it valuable when I was researching both of you. So yeah, thank you so much for coming on the show and for all that you’re doing.