Teens share why they’re always on their phones, and what they wish their parents understood

Aug 23, 2022, 9:49 AM
(Photo by Natasha Hall on Unsplash)...
(Photo by Natasha Hall on Unsplash)
(Photo by Natasha Hall on Unsplash)

When it comes to teens and screens, we all know the headlines: Teenagers Are Addicted To Social Media! How Do Parents Get Teens Off Their Phones? But it’s not often we hear how teens feel about technology. A new book called Behind Their Screens shows us “what teens are facing and adults are missing.”

“We’ve been doing research about teens and screens for over a decade,” said Emily Weinstein, Behind Their Screens co-author and a principal investigator at Harvard Project Zero. “I’m a psychologist, Carrie [James, the co-author] is a sociologist and we had this amazing opportunity to collect insights from more than 3,500 teenagers about how they navigate the digital world and what they most wish adults understood. Our book breaks down what’s myth, what’s reality, and how to have better conversations with the teens in your life.”

Carrie James, co-author and a principal investigator at Harvard Project Zero, says, for the first time, they worked side-by-side with teens.

“We had teens on our research team, we recruited a teen advisory council,” said James. “And this actually transformed what we learned. The teens really helped us identify the stories and insights that they most needed adults to hear. And what we learned really stopped us in our tracks.”

“Adults often assume that teens just want to be on their screens all the time,” said Weinstein. “One of the things that teens told us really clearly is that they do not want to feel like they can’t control their habits. They say things like ‘TikTok runs my life’ or ‘I don’t know why, I just can’t seem to get off of social media.’ There is a reason that tech companies are using features like infinite scroll, so you never reach the end of your news feed, notifications that activate a neural response to check who’s reaching out to me, what are they saying. We’re all vulnerable to these designs, but the pulls are also amplified for teens because these social technologies are playing, and in some cases even preying, on their developmental sensitivities and their impulse to connect with peers and seek feedback and validation.”

But a big piece of why teens are on their phones so much is a combination of social connection and social pressures.

“That leads them to stay connected, even in moments when they might prefer to disconnect,” said Weinstein. “They feel pressure to be available to their friends as part of being a good friend. They are in this constant push and pull between parents telling them, ‘Just get off your phones.’ And friends texting them, ‘I need you.'”

One of the most surprising finds was that teenagers actually want more support from their parents.

“Again and again teens told us that it’s not that they don’t want adult support, but so often the messages that adults give them about technology are so laden with assumptions that miss the mark or advice that just feels out of step with what their realities are,” said Weinstein. “It feels easier sometimes to just shut down. We could not believe how readily they would share really hard and personal stories with us. All we did, frankly, was open up a context for conversation that didn’t have a lot of judgement attached to it.”

James offers some advice for talking to teenagers about screen time and social media.

“One of the big keys is asking over assuming,” said James. “We talk about empathy over eye rolling. Even though the technologies they’re using look new and foreign to us, actually a lot of the things they really struggle with are the same kinds of things we struggled with as teens. Like the pressure
to be accepted, the desire to be liked and get feedback and validation from friends, the need to express your budding identity. All of these things are really familiar to us if we tune into them.”

Many teenagers who participated in the study said they’re afraid to be honest with their parents, out of fear they’ll have their devices or social media taken away. Which brings us to the book’s most taboo topic: sexting. They investigated why teens send nudes when they know the risks.

“Again and again, we heard that the only messages they were getting from adults was, ‘Just don’t sext.'” said Weinstein. “And they felt completely helpless and unsure what to do with that when all of a sudden it’s 10 o’clock on a Saturday night and you’re getting an inbound request and you actually have to figure out what the response you’re going to give is.”

Behind Their Screens is on shelves now, click here to get your own copy.

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Teens share why they’re always on their phones, and what they wish their parents understood