Sixteen-year-old Graham wanted to tell us how much time he’d spent on TikTok in the previous week, but he didn’t want to say it aloud during our Zoom call. He was worried his mom might overhear from the next room. (“24 hours!” he typed into the chat.)
We used to think the teen impulse to avoid confrontations with their parents about technology was just an effort to evade restrictive rules and harsh consequences. Now we know there’s more to it. For the past decade, we’ve researched teens and screens. Most recently, we’ve asked more than 3,500 students in middle schools and high schools across the United States about the positives and pain points of growing up with social media. We drilled down into their worries on everything from sexting to being canceled to the siren call of the screen at all hours. We learned that much of what adults think we understand about teens and screens is wrong.
As we talked to young people about different topics related to technology, we asked them repeatedly, “What’s something you wish adults understood about this?” They told us they wished their parents knew they actually wanted their guidance and support. That was true even when, like Graham, they worked hard to conceal the details of their lives in front of their screens.
That’s right: Your child wants your help.
Teens’ digital struggles are part of a larger issue they’re facing. The current adolescent mental health crisis is on your radar, no doubt. But there’s a hidden story behind it: The precipitous rise in youth depression and anxiety means that even teens who aren’t themselves struggling are more likely than ever to have friends and peers who are. For a teen who’s struggling, having a caring friend within reach can be a game changer. For the caring friend, being supportive can feel both essential and stressful. Teens told us they worry about not being available for friends in distress. And they’re torn between “I need you” messages from friends and relentless parental refrains to “get off your phone!”
Adults often criticize tech for eroding empathy, but they miss that empathy for others is one reason why teens keep their phones in reach. Consider a teen who sees a video of someone seeking help getting out of an abusive home. The poster includes their Venmo info and a request for money. Viewers are left to wonder: Is it a scam or a genuine cry for help? If they’re not sure, is it worth the risk of sending a few dollars? Teens need your help making sense of such situations and setting boundaries that protect their friendships and their own well-being.
Here’s another puzzler: digital footprints. With the best of intentions, adults tell teens, “Don’t post anything that will ruin your future!” Adults try to emphasize what’s at stake — “You’ll get kicked out of college, fired from a job, or even arrested!” The stakes are high indeed. But digital footprints aren’t fully in teens’ control. Friends constantly record and upload content without permission. A 12-year-old wrote to us, “If someone posts something bad on my instagram, then it’s there forever, even if i take it down.”
It’s not just peers; adults are implicated, too. Even posts asking for resources — for example, a parent’s post about their child’s diagnosis — can feel to the child like a major privacy violation.
When it comes to their own posting, young people may know that “If you make one wrong move, you could destroy your life,” as one 14-year-old told us. But it’s hard to get it right all the time — and for all time. We’re living in a world in which posts travel across space and time, out of context and toward new meanings. Cancel culture has trickled into teens’ schools, and digital evidence plays a key role. Screenshots of a classmate being offensive or just “being fake” get circulated to justify their cancellation.
Yet while adults warn teenagers about the high stakes of social media, we also dismiss worries about online “drama,” because “it’s just social media! Just delete the app!”
What can we do instead? We have found some consistently winning ways to approach teens’ online lives and create a united front.
The first step is to tune in to the dilemmas they’re facing. We need to offer empathy about how hard it is to navigate a landscape that they can’t really avoid. We need to talk about digital missteps but also next steps, including apologies, accountability, and learning from mistakes.
Next, we need to flip the script away from the tired adults-versus-teens tech battle. Teens tell us they don’t want to feel out of control of their tech habits. They say things that sound awfully resonant with adults’ concerns: One 13-year-old shared, “I feel like I’m too interested in my phone instead of what’s happening around me.” “It’s just scary to think that I only get one childhood, and I could accidentally slip into a habit where I just waste it away on some pointless game,” said a 14-year-old.
Yet the screen constantly beckons.
Ask the teens in your life about their tech habits. What do they do that works, and what habits do they wish they could change? Acknowledge your own struggles, too. Teens notice that their parents are often distracted by their tech. They say things like: “My parents tell me to put my [device] down and they immediately get back on their phones.” Facing your own habits and being intentional about what you’re modeling is crucial. This catalyzes a potent shift into an us-and-them approach, where we recognize that the battle for a healthy relationship with our devices is one we’re all in together.
Talking openly about design tricks is a power move. A study published in Child Development showed that if you want to motivate adolescents to change their tech habits, teaching them about “addictive design” is effective, because adolescents don’t like to be manipulated. That means talking about how notification buzzes and autoplay can make it hard for us to use tech in ways that align with our values — like our desire to give focused attention to the people in front of us. Social media apps serve up an endless supply of social information that taps directly into adolescents’ developmental sensitivities to what their peers are doing and thinking. And kids are exposed to these predatory designs from a very young age. A recent analysis of mobile apps for preschoolers, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that kids’ apps are routinely designed with insidious features that lure them into clicking on ads and extending their time on the apps. Being more aware of seductive features can help teens start taking back control.
You can practice an us-and-them approach in other ways, too. Try co-browsing — looking together through a social media feed and sharing your reactions with each other as you browse. “I’m noticing that so many of these pictures feature only people’s best moments, living their best lives. But everyone has bad days, right? There’s so much we don’t see.” Or, in games: “Wow. That ad looks like it’s part of the game. That’s really sneaky.” It’s a simple way to build connection and normalize the feelings they may have when they’re browsing alone.
Over the past year, a lot of public attention has justifiably focused on how best to rein in Big Tech. We shouldn’t stop pushing hard for regulation and policy change. But there’s a lot that we can and must do from home, too. When adults start and stop conversations with the message that social media is “bad,” teens are unlikely to bring up challenges that may only confirm our worst suspicions. Getting curious about teens’ digital experiences is essential because, as our research team discovered, there’s so much that adults are missing. Just ask a teen.
Emily Weinstein and Carrie James are principal investigators at Project Zero at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. They are the authors of “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing and Adults Are Missing.”