What Adults Don’t Get About Teens and Digital Life

It’s a snowman winter day, we were in the library of a charter high school in Portland, Maine. It was the first of many school visits where we teamed up with teachers to test classroom approaches to teaching thorny digital topics, from friendship challenges to civic dilemmas.

We started the session as we often do (whether the audience is teachers, parents, or techies) by naming a collection of common messages adults convey to teens about digital life:

  • Think before you post!
  • Don’t have sex!
  • Face cyberbullying!
  • Stand up for what you believe (but also: don’t get involved!
  • Online arguments are a waste of time!)
  • be honest
  • Be kind!
  • Be there for friends in need
  • Turn off your phone
  • You are what you post; now, tomorrow and in the future

These messages are well-intentioned and in many cases timely. They share them with teenage adults who truly care about them and want to make sure the youth stay safe and on the path to a successful life. However, these messages fall short. We do not mean that they are inaccurate or incorrect; we mean it’s not enough. Sometimes they are even counterproductive, amplifying anxiety without clarifying what teens can or should do when challenges arise. Today’s teenagers need more than broad principles and panic warnings.

So what do they need? Without a doubt, schools that create space for digital literacy. Technological designers who prioritize the well-being of young people again (and policies that guarantee it). Caring adults who stay alert to digital dilemmas, set helpful boundaries, and offer empathy, connection, and validation. All this is crucial, but it is still not enough. We must also find ways to support their sense of agency.

Psychologists have a lot of time we recognized that we, as individuals, do best when we believe that our actions can influence what happens and when we can shape an outcome through our behavior; in short, when we have agency. Conversely, feeling out of control regularly can threaten our well-being.

In so many areas of digital life, we see evidence from teenagers of a struggle to feel and be in control, to have digital agency.

There are real benefits and advantages of digital life for teenagers. Social media meets teens where they are in their development: ready for self-expression, exploration of their interests and values, connection with peers, and curiosity about the world at large. The struggle emerges as they struggle to regulate digital habits amid powerful design impulses and developmental sensibilities. It appears when features like Snapchat streaks force ongoing exchanges that they may not want to keep up with. But also:

  • When someone asks naked and believes that every decision (including saying “no”) is a loss.
  • When they care about a friend who is struggling but also want to disconnect.
  • When they care about a civic issue but recognize the dangers of posting and remaining silent.
  • When they feel trapped in unwanted filter bubbles that determine what they see.
  • When they’re asked to take care of their digital footprints, but can’t stop their peers from posting things they’d never want online.
  • When they worry about privacy risks, but face a reality where many risks are out of their hands.

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