By some accounts, young people’s relationship to technology is an unfolding crisis. It is now commonplace for adults to lament the “screen time” of young people and worry about its effect on their social lives and mental health. In 2023, the American Psychological Association issued a health advisory focusing on adolescent social media use, and the U.S. Surgeon General has said that social media can have “a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents. There is evidence that social media may contribute to issues like depression, anxiety, toxic social comparison, sleep problems, body image issues, and disordered eating.”

Teens seated side by side looking at phones.

Center for Digital Thriving

But is that the whole story? And if there is real cause for alarm, what should be done? Dr. Carrie James and Dr. Emily Weinstein are co-founders of the Center for Digital Thriving at Harvard University. In their book Behind Their Screens: What Teens are Facing (and Adults are Missing), Emily and Carrie draw on a survey of more than 3,500 teens with the goal of adding to our understanding of teens’ online lives. In this episode we explore how young people navigate our increasingly networked world and how we balance safety, empathy, and technology in response. 


Centering Youth Voices 

“I think curiosity has driven our work, because Carrie and I are just fascinated by the ways that tech can be beneficial and positive and the ways it can get toxic,” says Emily. “We’re really interested in breathing life into the headlines and the often very contentious debates about screen time.” 

Some surprising and insightful survey feedback helped uncover a more nuanced perspective on young peoples’ digital reality than is often discussed, she said. The feedback also motivated them to move forward with a more collaborative research approach. 

“One of the survey questions we asked was ‘what worries you most about growing up with today’s technologies?’,” says Carrie. “And honestly, a lot of what we heard from teens really stopped us in our tracks. They had surprising insights, and we realized we actually needed help from young people to interpret the data correctly.” 

As a result, intentional collaboration with youth became central to the research informing Carrie and Emily’s book, Behind Their Screens: What Teens are Facing (and What Adults are Missing). 

 “We’re really committed to ongoing collaboration with youth in order to tell the stories they need us to hear about what it’s like to grow up in a tech filled world,” says Emily. “Our focus is on bringing young people’s voices and stories, the details of their experiences, into the conversation.” 


Considering Contexts 

Overwhelmingly, teens’ input pointed out the importance for parents to consider the context of their child’s online experiences. Parents need to recognize that their child’s digital life intersects with all of the other contexts of their lives, experiences, and identities. 

“Youth are having really varied experiences online based on their identities,” says Emily. “For example, LGBTQ+ youth can experience online abuse, but we also know from our research that these young people find beneficial spaces for identity affirmation, for emotional support, for identity specific information. Similarly, Black youth experience racialized violence and hate speech online, traumatic exposure to viral images of Black death and dying, but also spaces of refuge and joy and solidarity and identity affirmation.” 

So, it’s important to remember that ‘screen time’ is not just one thing, says Carrie. 

“Based on our research, screen time is actually not really the best way to think about the most important issues around teens and tech. It’s not that screen time doesn’t matter altogether, but the ways in which young people are using screens, what they’re doing during their screen time, and what they’re not doing matters.” 


Interventions, Solutions, and Paths Forward 

In addition to prioritizing collaboration, Emily and Carrie’s research also takes a translational approach. 

“Translational research is conducted for the specific purpose of building new understandings, creating practical resources and tools that can be actually helpful,” says Emily. “We want our research to be helpful to young people so that they can grow up in a world with a lot of technology and figure out ways to thrive. So, it’s that research plus practice intersection that we’re always working at, at the Center for Digital Thriving,” 

Since 2023, the Center has partnered with Common Sense Education. Together with educators and clinical psychologists, they’ve created evidence-based lessons plans to support middle and high school students’ social-emotional learning and help them navigate their media use. Lessons are available at no cost and designed to help youth build agency, reduce anxious thoughts, and increase mindfulness related to their tech habits. Lessons look at some of the ‘thinking traps’ that confront teens in the context of tech – things like negative self-talk, anxiety, second guessing and labelling oneself through the lens of cognitive behavioral therapy. 

“Cognitive behavioral therapy has a whole evidence base around how to understand different kinds of distortions and thinking traps that come up and how we can start to shift them,” says Emily. “Recognizing, labelling, and shifting self-talk helps us get ourselves out of those traps so that they’re not leading to unfounded anxiety and feeling really insecure.” 

In addition to cognitive behavioral therapy, they encourage students to look at their digital lives in relation to their personal values. 

“We ask, ‘what is the role technology plays in supporting the values that are most important to you right now; how is tech helping you live those values and how tech is it making those values that you cherish right now so hard to live by?’” says Carrie. “And this is really powerful and revealing.” 

As always, young people continue to play an active role in the design of the interventions that are intended to support them. 

“We’re not going to create something for young people that’s about young people without their close partnerships,” says Carrie. “We want to know that we’re getting in the zone of the relevant things that they need.” 

The main themes of Carrie and Emily’s work – working collaboratively with youth, careful reading of the evidence, and sensitivity to the contexts in which young people make their way in the world – is consistent with the Hogg Foundation’s own approach to youth well-being 


A Vision of Thriving 

Thanks in large part to their commitment to participatory and translational research, Emily and Carrie offer adults a more nuanced and much needed perspective on young people’s digital lives. And their work continues to move us toward the vision of a world where everyone, especially youth, can thrive as we live with new technologies. 

“We’re interested in what can happen when we listen closely and understand the pain points and the struggles of youth in more detail, so that we can use that understanding to fuel the work we do, thinking concretely about interventions and also envisioning solutions and paths forward,” says Carrie. 


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