At this transitional moment for digital tech and youth online safety, the new book Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (and Adult Are Missing) feels almost miraculous to me.
The first reason why is that it’s more about teens than screens. Since the beginning of public concern about youth online safety in the late 1990s, we have been almost obsessively focused on the technology, not so much the people using it. That has synched perfectly with the way moral panics have always unfolded, but it distracts the people who really care about those whom they consider potential victims of the technology, us adults, from seeing and addressing what is actually harmful.
One very effective way we could’ve cut through all the fear and hype to get to the support and harm reduction kids actually need would’ve been to take deep (open-minded and -hearted) dives not only into their experiences with tech, but also into their views on the tech parts of their social and everyday lives.
That’s what authors Emily Weinstein and Carrie James have done. They really listened. In addition to surveys of and interviews with more than 3,000 middle and high school students over the past decade, they held dozens of 1:1 and small group discussions with a diverse group of 13-18 year-old advisers and even had two teen research managers, Sol Lange and Chloe Brenner, “who co-designed the facilitation guides and asked valuable follow-up questions.”
Teen co-researchers (around the world)
Lange and Brenner’s “closer proximity in age to adolescents and personal experiences prompted them to raise topics such as performative commenting … and particular facets of social comparison experiences on social media … that weren’t on our adult radar,” the authors write.
Their work is part of a young and growing body of research – such as that of the Young & Resilient Research Center at Western Sydney University and the work of Project AWeSome at the University of Amsterdam – which involves co-researching with youth and innovating new methodologies that incorporate young people’s lived experience with tech.
Weinstein and James show that their qualitative and quantitative research has taught them that “studies in different contexts with different groups of teens … challenge a simplistic, causal narrative that teens + screens inevitably = misery. This doesn’t mean social media isn’t a huge issue for some teens,” they continue, “but as adolescent mental health expert Candice Odgers puts it: ‘It may be time for adults to stop arguing over whether smartphones and social media are good or bad for teens’ mental health and start figuring out ways to best support them in both their offline and online lives’…. Teens wish we would heed this advice.”
For a few specifics on the book, it has 192 pp., including an Appendix about the years of research that went into it. There are seven chapters that cover everything from putting our (adult) concerns in context to how social cruelty in social media is “qualitatively different” from having it scrawled on a school bathroom wall to digital footprints and growing up in the social media fishbowl to informative, refreshingly judgment-free treatment of why teens sext to teens’ activism and how the online part relates to the offline part – and much more.
Reason No. 2
In the last chapter, the authors not only argue for empowering young people’s agency in their use of tech and media, they get at why it’s important (this is pretty miraculous too, reason No. 2 for why I’m so thankful for this book).
“Psychologists have long recognized that we as individuals fare better when we believe our actions can influence what happens, when we can shape an outcome through our behavior – when we have agency.” They cite the work of Martin E.P. Seligman on “learned helplessness” as “a compelling example of the ways inhibited control and agency can lead to depression” – the opposite of what we want for our children.
Families and schools would benefit greatly from heeding this in the context of addressing bullying and cyberbullying. It echoes what Prof. Ian Rivers at University of Strathclyde found, as shared in a briefing at the US Department of Education in 2011, where he said that “the single most significant predictor of suicide risk among bystanders was found to be POWERLESSNESS [emphasis his].” Again, “learned helplessness.” Bystanders of bullying situations represent a significant proportion of kids and teens, he indicated, saying that “63% of pupils witness bullying behaviour at school.”
The 3 types of agency
As for supporting teens’ agency in adolescent life as a whole, the authors offer up three types: “personal agency,” “collective agency” and “proxy agency.” I’ll let you read the book for details on the first two. “Proxy agency” is where we adults come in.
“This mode of agency acknowledges that, on their own – and even when they collaborate with others – teens only have so much control over their circumstances. Proxy agents are typically those who hold more power and can wield it on others’ behalf to support their agency.”
That last phrase is absolutely key. We adults must wield our greater power on their behalf, supporting their agency. Rather than resort to tokenism, showcasing young people to attain our goals for them (or their generation) – which disempowers and demoralizes those with less power and which becomes quickly obvious to them – we need to partner with the supposed beneficiaries of our research, parenting and policymaking. Children and teens’ own expertise, their lived experience with digital media and tech, is essential if we’re to get anywhere in maximizing their wellbeing.
Empathy not eye-rolling
There is basic respect in this. The authors of Behind Their Screens don’t only model how that’s done, they share their journey to this understanding, another thing I love about this book. “We used to think that conversations about teens would benefit from including their voices; now we think such conversations are inherently flawed when they don’t.” They offer what they call “conversation keys” to help us ensure fruitful collaboration with our children and students: “asking over assuming,” “empathy over eye-rolling,” “complexity over commandments,” “normalizing without minimalizing” and “normalizing without essentializing” (the keys are inherently respectful of young people’s dignity and interests).
That last key, a reference to the importance of acknowledging teens’ individuality as well as family, social and cultural contexts, reminds me of something I learned way back in 2009. A task force I served on concluded from a lit review it conducted that a child’s psychosocial makeup and home and school environments are better predictors of their online risk (and safety) than any technology the child uses. This was a revelation for me. It suggested to me that all the parental control tools that parents can use and all the content moderation that industry can do can never alone or together get us to “digital wellbeing.” Because their focus is strictly on tech, not teens, on the digital context not life context (something platforms can’t possibly have, and of course we don’t want them to). Behind Their Screens has the focus just right.
- A fundamental right: As if the reasons offered above aren’t enough, consulting children and young people about matters concerning them is also enshrined in the 33-year-old UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by every country on the planet except the United States. In 2021, the Convention was “upgraded” to include the digital rights of everyone under 18.
- About the growing global trend in getting children’s own views of wellbeing
- Moral panic effects: About the current moral panic’s first decade or so: “Juvenoia, Part 1” and “…Part 2” (a term coined by Prof. David Finkelhor at University of New Hampshire) and his (or rather everybody’s) “3 alarmist assumptions.” For more on the latest tech-related moral panic, see “The Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics” (2020), by Amy Orben at Cambridge University and “Social media and moral panics: Assessing the effects of technological change on societal reaction” (2020), by James P. Walsh at University of Ontario. See also “Why technopanics are bad,” which I wrote in 2009.
- Old school online safety ed: About research showing how much was wasted in adults assuming they knew what the problems were and how to educate against them: “Challenging Internet safety as a subject to be taught”
- For a brief look at the history of online safety, my chapter “The Child Online Safety Ecosystem—A Look at the History, Education, Content Moderation, and Developments Around the World” in the book Children’s Privacy and Safety (Digital), published this year by the International Society of Privacy Professionals (if you’d like a copy of the chapter, email me at annecollier[at]gmail.com)
- What works against agency: About a pivotal book published in late 2019 that called out the “control paradigm” that works against young people’s agency, Young People in Digital Society: Control Shift (other important books in this vein: Framing Internet Safety: The Governance of Youth Online, by Nathan Fisk, and Child Protection and Safeguarding Technologies: Appropriate or Excessive ‘Solutions’ to Social Problems?, by Andy Phippen and Maggie Brennan)
- We need context: two scholarly books that demonstrate how important it is to factor a child’s home and school contexts into our thinking about their use of digital tech and media: The Parent App, by Lynn Schofield Clark (2015) and Parenting for a Digital Future, by Sonia Livingstone and Alicia Blum-Ross (2020)
- The chapter on sexting: For its coverage of the book, the Washington Post zoomed in on sexting, including advice for parents on how to work with their teens on this activity, which is “no longer seen as developmentally inappropriate.” Consider this excellent example from one of their sources, Shelley Rutledge, a school psychologist in Oregon: “It’s … important to understand what function sexting would serve for your teen, Rutledge said — are they tempted to sext because they want to fit in, to save a friendship, to receive affirmation about their body? Then you can tailor the conversation around values. For example, if a friend asked your child for a nude image and won’t take no for an answer, you can talk about whether that person is really being a good friend.”
SIDEBAR: Why I call this a transitional time for tech and online safety
Just a short list of signs, here, because a whole blog post (whole book, actually) could be written on this subject. To me, there are a number of indicators that this is a pivotal moment for youth online safety. What have I left out? (Tell me in comments below.) Here’s a list that’s certainly not exhaustive:
- More and more research and news coverage on how useless the term “screen time” is (e.g., see this from scholars in the UK, saying “there is little clear-cut evidence that screen time decreases adolescent wellbeing,” this in the New York Times, this about a study at University of Colorado – and many other references I could share, reinforcing what two other scholars wrote in the UK way back in 2017
- Growing public interest in and news media attention on content moderation (human and algorithmic) – and more nuance in the discussion (see a list of articles on the subject in The Conversation, “More Content Moderation Isn’t Always Better” in Wired and “Why Moderating Content Actually Does More to Support the Principles of Free Speech” in TechDirt)
- The youth mental health crisis before, during and since the height of the pandemic, shifting the focus slightly more toward digital wellbeing, which is more nuanced and touches on the psychosocial aspect of young people’s tech use, and away from the “4 Cs” of the previous online safety era (the Cs being “Content,” “Contact” (predation), “Conduct” (digital hate, harassment and bullying) and “Contract” (“child as online consumer”), focusing only on risk and harm. On the mental health crisis, see “US youth are in a mental health crisis—we must invest in their care” from the American Psychological Association and “Pandemic accelerated youth mental health crisis” from Harvard School of Public Health
- Greater balance between digital privacy and digital safety in the public discussion (see “Instagram fined 405m euros over children’s data privacy” from the BBC, this about growing regulatory scrutiny of kids’ privacy and this about an important new book about “datafied childhood”)
- Momentum toward child safety regulation even in the US (see this and this)
- From worries about smartphones to concerns about VR and immersive environments – and the consumer tech industry’s shift of focus to the metaverse (see Wired on “What Is the Metaverse, Exactly?” and an account of my own experience with it)
- A growing body of thoughtful scholarly work on smart parenting around tech and media (see the scholarly books mentioned below)
Maybe my antennae are up, too, because, as you may’ve noticed, I’ve been transitioning too – to heart projects such as my work with Tijana Milosevic at Dublin City University’s Anti-Bullying Center on dignity theory and bullying prevention and with scholars at Stanford University on youth social media use and mental health, and blogging about important scholarship rather than day-to-day news coverage.