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23 Mar, Thursday
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Montreal Families

Book delves into the digital lives of teenagers

What are teens actually doing on their smartphones? Contrary to many adult assumptions, they are not simply addicted to their screens, oblivious to the afterlife of what they post, or missing out on personal connections. They are just trying to navigate a networked world.

In Behind their screens: what teens are facing (and adults are missing), Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, Harvard University researchers who study teens and technology, explore the complexities that teens face in their digital lives.

Drawing on a multiyear project that surveyed more than 3,500 teens, the authors explain that young people need empathy, not exasperated eye-rolling. They say parents who scream “get off your phone” are falling short and not helping their teens.

What concerns do teens have about their digital lives?

The authors say adults should try and understand the complicated nature of teens’ online lives rather than issue commands, and they should let teens know that their challenges are shared by others.

They should also understand that many teens worry about dependence on their devices, but disconnecting means being out of the loop socially, with absence perceived as rudeness or even failure to be there for friends who may be struggling.

The seven chapters were chosen “based on concerns that were salient to adolescents but often misunderstood by adults.” They cover a wide-range of topics, including putting digital worries in context, digital footprints that may last a lifetime, nudes (why teens sext when they know the risks), friendship dilemmas and more.

What teens want adults to know

Each chapter ends with a section about what teens want adults to know. Because of the focus on teen voices, much of the book reads like a message from young people to adults. This aspect makes the book extremely compelling because a lot of what is said is “coming out of the mouth of babes.”

Chapter one tackles the issue of society’s perception of social media. The authors warn that alarmist headlines seem to confirm the instinct that there is something deeply concerning about growing up in a digital world.

“It’s easy to feel like we’re doing something terribly wrong by ‘allowing’ teens to use cell phones,” the authors say. “But news stories tend to oversimplify the available research evidence. As a result, they can contribute to unproductive panic.”

But what about articles that point to teens suffering from higher rates of depression and suicide risk because of social media? The authors say we need to be careful. Yes, there has been a pronounced increase in mental health issues for adolescents – girls in particular – beginning around 2010, which coincides with the increase use of smartphones.

“Some widely publicized research shows correlations between heavy social media use among adolescents and less happiness.” But the authors say the data can’t tell us for sure whether social media is causing teens to be less happy or vice versa (i.e. if less happy teens are using social media more). They don’t argue it isn’t, they just say it is nuanced and needs to be examined further.

“Concerning stories are memorable and it’s natural to grab on to information aligned with whatever we already believe,” the authors say. “In truth, research findings about technology are almost always more nuanced. Admittedly, nuanced findings don’t make for the snappiest headlines.”

Book highlights some of the benefits of social media

Rather than just the negatives, the book also focuses on the positive aspects of social media and screens. It shows the meaningful ways teens are able to connect through social media — with online study groups, staying in touch with friends, and finding peer support for any issue one might be dealing with.

For the many parents who are not up on today’s sexting phenomena, chapter 5 provides a lot of insight. Terminology such as watermarking nudes is explained, where adding a barely visible digital watermark with the name of the intended recipient is used as a kind of warranty. Then, the sender will know who leaked the picture if it is ever shared. The authors also spell out nine reasons why teens send nudes and clarify why sweeping warnings (“just don’t sext”) are not effective.

With the constant, quick evolution of social media use, it is clear more research is needed about how it is affecting today’s youth. But, according to some teens, parents need to stop blaming all stress/unhappiness on its use.

As the authors say, “there is more and more evidence showing that teens have different digital experiences.  It may be fair to say that many – even most – are struggling with some aspect of their digital lives. But what’s hard varies. What’s valuable and important and even awesome varies too.”

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