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Children, young people and families, Developmental, Personality and self

Navigating the complexities of teens on screens

Aruna Sankaranarayanan reviews 'Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adults Are Missing)' by Emily Weinstein & Carrie James.

06 February 2023

Part of 'growing up' as parents involves learning to deal with tenacious teens who simultaneously inhabit two spheres: the real and virtual. As adults we may be dismissive of teenage troubles that stem from the online world. But as Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, point out, what happens in the virtual world has real implications, especially for youngsters whose online life often determines the quality of their offline one. So if a teenager is experiencing angst due to social media posts, just telling them to disconnect isn't necessarily the best solution. For most teens, their social lives in the real world depend on being connected virtually as well.

The authors, who are Harvard researchers, draw on a survey of 3500 teens across the United States. They also relied on an advisory council of young people when examining and interpreting the data to ensure that adult assumptions didn't cloud the findings. The goal was to provide a 'more textured, authentic understanding of teens' worries and experiences'. The authors contend that media coverage regarding teens' device usage tends to be 'alarmist' and doesn't provide a balanced, nuanced perspective that can inform parents and educators on how best to support teens in the digital world.

They advise that we adopt an empathetic rather than a judgmental stance if we want to help teens develop healthy digital habits. Black-and-white diktats issued by parents are less impactful than recognising the numerous complexities involved in various social media decisions.

As the effects of social media usage on teens is mediated by both individual and contextual factors, blanket recommendations aren't necessarily useful. We need to refrain from seeing social media in black and white terms, they say. While it encourages 'creative expression and social interactions', on the flipside it may promote 'toxic comparison' and fuel mental health problems. How an individual engages with social media is more important than drawing sweeping generalisations. 

The authors examine teens' social media usage from a trio of lenses – developmental, ecological and digital – to provide a more rounded view. When parents and educators understand the dilemmas and difficulties that teens face with screens, we may have more meaningful discussions with them, with the ultimate aim of promoting digital agency. 

Overall, this is a comprehensive guide regarding teens' digital lives. One limitation, which the authors acknowledge, is their US-centric sample. Including voices from all over the world would have helped unearth specific cultural trends in addition to more universal ones.

Reviewed by Aruna Sankaranarayanan, author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know.