When we think of kids and tech, it’s usually in relation to them wasting too much time on inane text threads (my 11-year-old son’s phone woke everyone up at 3 a.m. recently with a series of memes from a friend) or zoning out to YouTube.
But it goes deeper than annoying over-dependence, especially when it comes to civic activism and social expectations. Kids who don’t post about political issues can be shunned by friends; those who do post can be called performative or inauthentic. The pull toward a screen isn’t just about recreation — it’s about identity.
For over a decade, Project Zero’s Emily Weinstein and Carrie James have conducted research on young people’s digital lives and its relevancy to their sense of wellbeing and civic agency. Project Zero is a longstanding research center at the Harvard Graduate School of Education: It’s the place that brought you Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences, for instance.
Their new book is “Behind Their Screens: What Teens are Facing (and Adults are Missing),” out on August 16. They studied 3,500 adolescents across the country about their tech habits, fears, and behaviors, from being snubbed on group chats to sexting culture and social media activism.
As a parent, I feel like I read about this stuff a lot. What’s unique about your research?
Carrie: Something really revelatory about our research is it actually shows that [kids] share a lot of adults’ common worries about our connected world. They do worry about being too dependent on their phones, feeling too tethered to their devices. They do worry about posting things that will come back to bite them. Now, it doesn’t mean that they always handle their devices and posting on social media in a perfect way, but there are real, legitimate reasons and pulls for why they behave in ways that go counter to some of their worries and fear.
They’re weighing developmental needs and pulls to express themselves, to connect with peers, a sense of social obligation to be available all the time. We heard from teens who really felt a sense of burden to be available to a friend who was struggling. There are a variety of different reasons that underlie why they continue to behave in ways that may look like they’re counter to the worries and anxieties they actually have, which are shared [by] adults.
You’ve been doing this research for a decade. What’s changed since you started?
Emily: The amount and nature of new social information that teens are managing is just pretty astounding. Even compared with a decade ago, we’re hearing more about things like the dynamics of group chat — even if you’re not on Instagram or Snapchat, how the dynamics of who’s in and who’s out of a group chat have real ramifications for offline social dynamics.
We heard about monitoring things like Venmo transactions. If you see a Venmo transaction for a Dunkin’ Donuts charge between two of your friends, you start wondering: When did they start hanging out so much? Or you go on Find My Friends and see your friends’ avatars clustered together in real time, and you realize that you weren’t included.
These are new kinds of social information that we really weren’t hearing about in the research a decade ago. They’ve just generated so much new information, but also so many new kinds of social life analytics to be obsessing over, that meet this developmental sensitivity with this exact kind of information in a way that just ups the ante. It’s like this magnetic pull to your screen that results from this collision of tech design and developmental impulses.
Our research also captured a tremendous shift in civic and political activism on social media.
I was going to ask about that, too. After Roe v. Wade was overturned, I was scrolling on Instagram and saw that teenagers I knew were posting on abortion rights. And I thought: “Well, this is great. They’re involved and aware.” But I also thought: “These are still just kids.”
Carrie: This is an area where we saw a real, profound shift over the last decade. We first started studying teens and young adults and how they approach civic issues on social media back in 2010, 2011, 2012. Back then, these were young people who were really involved in civic issues, and we asked them about the role that social media played in that. And, for many of them, it was an empowering role. They felt like they could have a voice, but they also acknowledged that there were significant challenges, like backlash, from having your voice sort of devolve into a shouting match with another person.
At that time, teens told us: “It can be empowering, but there are all these challenges.” But they felt like it was optional — almost extra credit — to post on social media as part of their activism.
What about now? It’s not just extra credit anymore?
Carrie: When we talked to teens most recently, that’s decidedly no longer the case. Today, it can feel really expected and essential. What’s harder is that there are so many ways to get it wrong. Teens tell us that their peers actually monitor who speaks up and who doesn’t about every issue, calling out anything that they do as hypocritical or performative or problematic or insincere.
It sounds exhausting.
Carrie: Friendships are very much on the line. Teens talk about breaking friendships over the presence or absence of social media posts — for example, Black Lives Matter.
The timing of posts really matters, too. We had this unbelievable story: A teen told us about a scandal that broke out in her high school sparked by a selfie on the beach that a student posted. Now, on any other day, that selfie would’ve generated a steady stream of likes and over-the-top comments. But it was the day after George Floyd was murdered. There was this huge backlash on her comment thread, highly public. The comments were on fire with people arguing about whether this was completely out of touch and completely insensitive.
What advice do you have for parents or for teenagers who are caught between wanting to be their authentic selves online, feeling like they have to speak up, and worried if it’s performative?
Carrie: For civics and activism in particular, teens told us that they wish adults understood both sides. One side is that social media can be incredibly empowering. It’s a site of learning. It’s a space to have a voice, and maybe see some impact, participate in some impact, even before they can vote.
But it’s also a minefield of risks and pressure. We really feel like adults need a mind-shift on this topic. We might say things like, “Stand up for what you believe in!” on the one hand, or we might say, “Stay away from politics online; it’s just a train wreck,” without really understanding that both stances are complicated for teens right now. Or we might dismiss social media as easy activism and not see that it actually can feel really burdensome and really pressured.
We advocate opening up conversations with your teens about how civics and political issues show up for them on social media. Ask your kids: “What do you see on social media? How does that shape the issues you care about and want to get involved in? What do you think about when you post something about a current issue or event? What’s hard for you and why?”
We find that there’s real power in asking open-ended, simple questions that open up a conversation and open up an opportunity to share some of the empowering parts, but also some of the tensions and pulls.
What are the landmines? Where do kids spend most of their time? Is it TikTok? Snapchat? I’m old.
Emily: So certainly TikTok and YouTube come to mind right away. But, honestly, one of the things that we found is that it varies for different kids, and that the best way for us to understand what’s most relevant to a particular [kid] is to ask them. And that becomes really important, because actually we can’t always anticipate the answer. Different apps have different opportunities and challenges. So set the stage and open the conversation to say: “What do you find that you’re spending most of your phone time on? Is it Discord? Is it TikTok or gaming? Is it YouTube? What are you watching?”
Those kinds of conversations set the stage for us to understand more of the details of what a particular kid is doing during their screen time. There’s a borderline cultural obsession with the concept of screen time. The reality is that screen time has just not turned out to be the best way for us to actually understand issues around teens and technology.
What’s the better way?
Emily: There’s power in a pivot. Where instead of starting with the technology, we start by trying to understand what’s hard for a particular kid at a particular moment. What are their vulnerabilities and stresses? And then ask in a really intentional way: How is technology intersecting with those challenges? How is it making them better or worse?
In some cases, we have kids who are really at risk in certain ways and have particular vulnerabilities. Maybe they’re struggling with an eating disorder, but they’re actually using social media as part of their recovery. Whereas we have other kids who have that same vulnerability and challenge, who are using social media in ways that are really toxic and really amplifying their distress and their vulnerabilities.
Start with a step back from the technology and really ask: What are my kid’s particular strengths right now? What are their vulnerabilities? Social media is really an amplifier. How is the way that they’re using technology amplifying or mitigating those challenges? This has been one of the most profound shifts, I think, in the way we think about the space over the last few years.