What are teens doing behind their screens?

New book examines smartphones and digital lives of young people today
The co-author of a new book on the digital lives of teens advises parents not to simply criticize their kids for using their phones so much, but ask them why sites like TikTok are so compelling to them.  (Dreamstime/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

The co-author of a new book on the digital lives of teens advises parents not to simply criticize their kids for using their phones so much, but ask them why sites like TikTok are so compelling to them. (Dreamstime/TNS)

In talking to teens about social media and smartphones, sociologist Carrie James recommends adults not fixate on cautions and warnings. Instead, James urges, “Start with curiosity.”

Her suggestion — and the approach she takes with her daughters — is to avoid assailing teens about why they can’t just get off their phones. Rather, James advises asking them what is so fun about TikTok. Why is it such a rabbit hole that it distracts them from things that are important in their lives? Even though it may be fun, are there parts of social media that are hard for them?

A principal investigator at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, James studies the digital lives of teens and co-wrote a book on what kids actually do on their phones. Due out next week, “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And Adults Are Missing)” builds on her extensive research with co-author Emily Weinstein into the online lives of teens, including surveying more than 3,500 teens. James also wrote the 2014 book “Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap.”

Teens are attached to their phones, as schools can attest. It’s become a daily struggle to stop middle and high school students from checking their phones during class. A 2020 EdWeek Research Center survey found 85% of teachers and principals agreed that mobile devices had diminished the attention span of today’s students.

Fulton County Schools began this new school year with tighter reins on phones: Elementary students are prohibited from using phones during the school day, although they can still have them, a nod to parents who want their children within easy reach. Middle and high school students in Fulton can’t use phones during class without the teacher’s permission, but can pull them out during non-instructional time.

Common Sense Media found that more than half of U.S. kids get their own smartphone by age 11. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, 95% of teens now have access to a smartphone. The same survey revealed that 45% of teenagers are “almost constantly” on the internet. Without their phones in hand, 56% of teens reported being upset or feeling anxious or lonely.

Most parents and teachers worry that young people don’t grasp the lasting imprint of a digital footprint, warning kids that what they post today could unravel their dreams tomorrow. It happened to then-27-year-old journalist wunderkind Alexi McCammond, who was about to become editor of Teen Vogue when anti-Asian and homophobic tweets she posted as a 17-year-old resurfaced. She and the magazine parted ways.

Teens worry, too, about their online afterlife, said James, but lack what she calls the agency about how to maintain control. Teens can’t control the posting of photos or private content that their peers may share. For example, McCammond apologized years earlier for her troubling teen tweets and deleted them, but they were resurrected when she won the Teen Vogue job.

“Help your teens expect and anticipate missteps,” said James, “and, when they stumble, if they make mistakes, we need to be there for them with empathy.”

James cites sexting as a practice that teens understand comes with risks but feel pressured to do it. “Boys who don’t really want to ask for nudes are pressured by their friends who want to know if they’ve asked their girlfriend for one. And girls feel they have no good choices when they are asked,” said James.

Adults have to recognize that phones serve as the connective tissue in teen lives. “If you don’t have a way to keep in touch with your peer group, you will be on sidelines, you will be left out,” she said. Turning off their phones means teens are cut off from what’s being posted about them and out of reach of friends who may be struggling.

James resists naming an ideal age to give a child a phone, saying parents have to consider their children’s susceptibility. “Are your kids orchids or dandelions? Dandelions are really hardy and can thrive in a range of conditions. Orchids are much more sensitive to changes in their environment. The question you have to ask is what will a digital device amplify for your child. It can amplify their strengths, but it can really open kids up to vulnerabilities and risks.”

Adults alarmed over their children’s digital dependency should examine their own, said James. She cited a group of Boston kindergartners who, as a project, designed their perfect playground. A feature in the plan: lockers to store smartphones so their parents would focus on playing with them rather than looking at their screens all the time.