Unpacking Students’ Digital Lives – A Community Conversation

Children are growing up in an increasingly interconnected digital world. How can parents/guardians and educators support kids’ online experiences, help them evaluate their relationships with technology, and develop healthy screen habits? On November 17, Windward welcomed Dr. Carrie James and Dr. Emily Weinstein for a community presentation around this topic. Their multi-year study of more than 3,500 teenagers culminated in the book Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And Adults Are Missing), which Head of School Jamie Williamson, EdS, praises and recommends for all parents of teens. 

Teens have different experiences on social media than adults do 

As revealed by the study, teens leverage social media vastly differently than how adults interact with it. Drs. James and Weinstein shared the importance of understanding that while social media engagement may feel optional for adults, to teens it feels like an obligation. What adults may miss are the subtle ways technology use plays into and amplifies children’s concerns about their friends and their friendships. During the study, some teens shared this anxiety: “If I don’t stay connected, the friendship will fall apart.” To compound the issue, small features in phones, like Read receipts, can almost set a clock ticking. “I have to respond and I have to respond in the right way.” And the right time has to be calibrated to how close the friend is. To teens, engaging on social media can often feel complicated, nuanced, and fraught with uncertainty. 

Kids are often more worried about their digital habits than we recognize 

Teens in the study referred to “the digital pacifier”: When they’re in a social setting, they pull out their phone to appear distracted and busy instead of awkward. Teens shared that what they really want in these moments is to connect with the other people in the room, but they don’t know how to begin. So, instead, they pull out their phone. As soon as they do, they know they’re less approachable.  

Further, developmental sensitivities in the adolescent brain turn up this volume. Technologies are playing to, and in some cases preying on, kids’ development of self-regulation. Social media offers peer feedback 24/7. There’s a collision between what technologies are offering that teens are primed to care about and what is developed to optimize user engagement.  

Some teens in the study expressed concern about their digital habits: “I don’t want to look back on my childhood and see I wasted it on a pointless game.” Or “TikTok is pulling me in too much.” This battle against the pull of the screen is real, and it affects adults, too.  

Drs. James and Weinstein shared some actionable steps parents/guardians can take: 

  1. Speak with your children about persuasive design. These elements are designed to capture their attention. Teaching teens in particular taps into their sensitivity to being manipulated.  

  1. Support habit changes. One thing in particular is to ask your child, “What habits are working well for you? What do you feel good about with respect to your phone? What are the things you want to change?” Start with what they want to address, choosing one thing, and trying a habit change for a defined time (a few days, a week, etc.).  

  1. Tap into the child’s sense of empowerment and agency by making it a collaborative discussion. 

Elevating our own awareness as adults can shift our perspectives 

So many tech habits are automatic. Parents and guardians can elevate their awareness by being more cognizant of these habits, and how what they see on their screen makes them feel; for example, thinking, “What engagement online tosses me into a comparison quicksand trap?” Adults are vulnerable in these areas, as well. The panelists recommended some action steps: 

  1. You can focus on when your habits are out of step with your values. When are you stepping out of the moment, not being present?  

  1. You can aim to resist the urge to use your phone when bored or distracted. 

  1. Model positive change: Narrating out loud what you’re doing, normalizing the struggle and the pull, creates an Us AND Them approach with your teen. For example, saying, “I’m feeling distracted right now. I’m going to put my phone in the other room so I can pay attention to you.”  

  1. Be alert about what you’re modeling and being explicit about the things you want to change. 

For more information, you can refer to the K-12 digital citizenship curriculum designed by Drs. James and Weinstein for Common Sense Media.

In case you missed it

Access the full presentation below.