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Six biggest sources of digital stress in teens

While my 14-year-old son is a wiz at teaching me every tool on my iPhone, how well does he handle the stress of dealing with friends in the digital world? It’s a discussion I’m planning on having with him after reading the results of a new Harvard study that suggests teens face a unique set of social challenges when interacting on electronic devices.

Teens often text, chat, or email messages that they’d never say face-to-face to their friends. (Adults do as well.)

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After analyzing 2000 stories on digital dilemmas posted anonymously by teens to the MTV website Over the Line, Harvard Graduate School researchers found that stresses teens encountered with texts, emails, and social media conversations usually fell into one of six categories, such as cyber-bullying or feeling smothered by a constantly-texting friend. The study was published online earlier this week in the journal New Media & Society.

“There’s an incredible value in identifying and naming the types of stresses adolescents are encountering,” said study leader Emily Weinstein, a Harvard doctoral student in human development and education. “We don’t want parents to miss real opportunities to help their teens navigate these stresses.”

Here’s what the study found to be the six biggest sources of digital stress among teens:

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1. Impersonation. Teens often posted about having their social media accounts hacked into by frenemies, jilted boyfriends or girlfriends, or acquaintances playing a practical joke. The purpose is to slander, mock, or embarrass the impersonated, according to Weinstein. One teen wrote about a girl hacking into her instant messaging account and “trash-talking” all her friends. “She made so many people hate me,” read the post analyzed by the researchers. Impersonation can also occur when teens set up fake social media accounts with their target’s name and picture.

2. Receiving mean and harassing personal attacks. Like impersonation, this is also generated by hostility often in the form of anonymous hate messages via email, text, or social media comments. One teen wrote, “I got a lot of tumblr anonymous hatemails saying things like ‘You need to start cutting yourself again. But this time, you need to cut really deep so you bleed out and die.’”

3. Public shaming and humiliation. This can happen when that trusted person with access to a nude photo or embarrassing secret decides to broadcast it to everyone in a teen’s social circle. Like the first two stresses, this one also involves hostility directed at the teen victim.

4. Breaking and entering. This involves snooping by going through someone’s emails or texts without their permission — or rifling through their photos stored on their phone or computer. Teens posted that their friends did this after borrowing their phone to make a phone call or their laptop to do an Internet search.

5. Pressure to comply. Teens posted that they felt pressured to give their closest friend or romantic partner their passwords to access their accounts — as a sign of trust. That was also a big motivation for sharing nude photos or making sexual videos. “It was about intimacy and teens wanting to communicate that they know that special someone would never hurt them and that they don’t have to have any secrets,” Weinstein said.

Just as teens have a hard time assessing risks — research suggests this part of the brain doesn’t fully develop until 25 — they may not know how to properly navigate the currency of trust. Parents can help guide them, Weinstein added.

6. Feeling smothered. This is a particular problem in the cell phone era with unlimited text messaging. The researchers cited one teen who posted, “My girlfriend will text me good morning, if i dont respond right away she will send a question mark with a question, then a few more question marks, then call me. If i don’t respind she gets realy upset and angry. is this abuse? what do i do?”

Weinstein pointed out that teens are often worried about telling their friends or significant others to stop the constant contact, fearing that could trigger an ending of the relationship. Parents can help by reassuring their teens that setting boundaries can actually strengthen bonds — or at least bonds that are worth strengthening.

She’s currently working on a website with the non-profit organization Common Sense Media that will provide more resources to families on dealing with stresses in the digital world. It’s set to launch this fall.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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