Emily Weinstein and Carrie James have been studying the digital lives of teens for over a decade and they both work at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero (PZ). Emily is a psychologist who is a senior researcher at PZ. Carrie is a sociologist who works at PZ as a research associate and principal investigator.
Below, Emily and Carrie share 5 key insights from their new book, Behind Their Screens: What Teens are Facing (and Adults Are Missing). Listen to the audio version—read by the authors themselves—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. Teens don’t want unlimited screen time.
Adults often assume that teens want constant, unregulated time on their devices. When 16-year-old Graham told us it’s hard to pull himself away from TikTok, we asked him how he stops. “I don’t,” he said. “Ever.” But it would be a mistake to interpret Graham’s habits as a sign that he’s not worried about the costs—he told us that he is. And he’s not alone. Teens, again and again, shared reflections with us like, I feel like I’m too interested in my phone instead of what’s happening around me (that’s from a 13-year-old). A 14-year-old told us, 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.
Tech companies use strategic features to attract and hold attention. Infinite scroll and autoplay have made it so that we never reach the end of new content or a natural stopping cue. Notifications play on the power of variable rewards, training us toward impulsively checking right away.
We’re all vulnerable to these designs, but the pulls are amplified for teens. Social technologies prey on developmental sensitivities. Teens are primed to express themselves and seek peer connection and validation. They are also still developing the neural circuitry that supports self-regulation and impulse control—making it harder for them to put their phones aside.
When we recognize that teens’ concerns about their tech habits actually sound a lot like adults’ concerns, we can break free from the adult-versus-teens battle over screens. Instead, we can see the pull of the screen for what it really is: an us-and-them fight against persuasive design.
2. A hidden toll of empathy is mounting.
There is an adolescent mental health crisis, but there’s a hidden story behind it: the precipitous rise in youth depression and anxiety means that even teens who aren’t struggling are more likely than ever to have friends and peers who are. For a struggling teen, having a caring friend 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.
“Adults often criticize tech for eroding empathy but miss that empathy for others can be a reason teens feel pressure to keep their phones within reach.”
This is a heavy burden on young shoulders. They’re torn between I need you messages from friends and relentless refrains from adults to just get off your phone! Adults often criticize tech for eroding empathy but miss that empathy for others can be a reason teens feel pressure to keep their phones within reach.
The challenges extend beyond friendships, too. 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 wondering: Is this a scam, or a genuine cry for help? If they’re not sure, is it worth the risk of sending a few dollars?
Being an empathetic teen is tricky in a digital world. Teens need adult guidance in making sense of digital cries for help, and setting boundaries that protect friendships and their own well-being.
3. The political is interpersonal.
Many adults have felt the roller coaster ride (in recent years especially) in terms of social media and political life. Our research captured a profound shift over the last decade in the ways teens experience politics online. Teens in 2013 told us that being political online was optional. Now, that’s no longer the case. Today it can feel expected—but there are many ways to get it wrong.
Teens tell us that their peers monitor who speaks up—and who doesn’t—about every issue, calling out anything they view as hypocritical, performative, problematic, or insincere. As one teen put it, it goes both ways: you feel scared to post something and you feel obligated to post something.
Friendships are on the line. Teens describe breaking friendships over the presence or absence of social media posts about urgent civic issues. During our research, we heard this play out in the context of Black Lives Matter.
The timing of posts matters, too. We heard a story from a teen about how a classmate’s post of a beach selfie became a lightning rod when it coincided with devastating national news. The poster was quickly called out in comments for being out of touch and uncaring. Where, when, and how teens engage civically on social media is all under the microscope. Make no mistake: teens describe real clear positives in this landscape too, but posting about civic issues isn’t easy activism.
“Teens describe breaking friendships over the presence or absence of social media posts about urgent civic issues.”
What we learned from listening to teens suggests that adults need a mind shift on this topic. We might say “stand up for what you believe in” or “stay away from politics online” without understanding that both stances are complicated for teens today.
4. Beware subtle jabs.
Much of what is recognized by teens as clearly hostile and malicious falls outside of what adults recognize as cyberbullying. It can even look totally benign to an outsider who doesn’t know the context.
Take the example of a teen who goes through and ‘likes’ every single one of her peer’s old social media posts. This might seem neutral to positive, but aggressive liking can actually be a way that teen A is saying to teen B: “I’m watching you” – almost instigating or provoking a reaction. Or, consider comments that look nice at face value but are actually mean. One of our teen advisors told us that when two girls “have beef,” a comment like, oh my God, you’re so gorgeous, I wish I could be you might be offered through gritted teeth, and meant as sarcastic and downright aggressive.
Then there are other features of social media that stoke conflict. An especially salient example is Snapchat’s snap maps. This feature shows where your friends are in real time and monitoring the map can reveal that your friends are all hanging out somewhere—without you. The same goes for seemingly benign social information like Venmo financial exchanges. Imagine seeing that three of your friends charged each other for a Dunkin Donuts run or movie tickets and this is how you realize that you weren’t invited.
The realities of social conflict and being left out are nothing new, but social media makes social slights much more visible and public. Teens wish adults would acknowledge the spectrum of how peer conflict plays out, from clear-cut bullying to much subtler jabs. If adults don’t acknowledge this spectrum, we can end up minimizing anything that isn’t on the blatant end and overlook issues that are quite painful and consequential for teens.
5. Cancel culture has trickled down to everyday teens.
Adults worry (and talk) a lot about the idea that teens’ posts will linger and come back to haunt them. But among teens, there’s more awareness of the digital footprint than most adults appreciate. Again and again, teens shared perspectives like the 13-year-old who said: If you’re young and make a post that the older you would regret, it’s too late… Someone or something has already saved it and stored it so that you have no way of deleting it.
“Adults can help adolescents handle mistakes with integrity and grace when they happen.”
Cancel culture ups the ante—both immediately and longer-term. Teens know that making mistakes is part of growing up, but they also feel like they’re living in a make-no-mistakes world. They see people being held accountable for real moral transgressions alongside peers canceling classmates for trivial drama.
Taking screenshots of social media posts and even private text conversations has become a norm. This means that relationships that go sour can leave behind a trove of digital artifacts that can be taken out of context and tapped to harm an ex-friend’s reputation. Awareness about the potential permanence of posts doesn’t always translate into clean online trails. There are social dynamics, developmental complexities, and the reality that others are constantly recording and posting content never meant to go online.
Teens need more than panicked warnings that they might ruin their lives. They also need advice about how to use privacy settings and other app features to protect themselves. But wisdom is also crucial and adults have a lot to offer even if they don’t know how Snapchat or TikTok works. Adults can help adolescents handle mistakes with integrity and grace when they happen. We can talk about making apologies and amends where they are due, and learning from mistakes with a growth mindset spirit.
Teens are motivated to have happy, healthy, fulfilling lives with tech. And they’re not just bystanders: many teens detailed creative hacks and approaches they use to navigate the issues within digital life. We also see that teens are in a generational fight for digital agency, focus, and mental health. Adults have a role to play: we need to provide teens with empathy and active guidance, and we need to get serious about creating better infrastructure—particularly through tech design, education, and policy regulation. When we better understand what teens are facing behind their screens, we’re better positioned to step up in the ways they need.
To listen to the audio version read by authors Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, download the Next Big Idea App today: