We’ve spent the last decade studying the questions that loom large in the current news cycle. What are the implications of social media for teen mental health? What are the benefits of growing up digital? What’s dispiriting or even toxic, and for whom?
We’ve talked about these issues with a lot of teens. Based on research with more than 3,600 teenagers, we wrote a book (out next year from the MIT Press) called “Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And Adults Are Missing).” We’ve worked closely with youths and families in different contexts, from schools and community centers to summer camps and even hospitals. One crucial insight: We need to think about teens’ tech experiences with a much wider lens.
We must focus on creating the best human experience (HX) for teens. A focus on HX broadens our attention to talking about, engaging with and designing tech in ways that align with our needs as human beings. HX urges us to think beyond the pitfalls of specific social media apps and more holistically about their place in a teen’s life.
It’s tempting to put all the blame for teens’ struggles on social media. But teens need us to start by asking and really listening to their stresses, worries and joys. What are their current vulnerabilities and struggles? What are true sources of comfort, connection and happiness? And what particular tech experiences amplify or undercut well-being?
HX is about what people are seeing and how they make sense of it. For one teen, workout videos are motivating and support healthy habits. For another teen, these same videos reinforce a painful sense that they’re not fit enough, thin enough or “productive” enough.
Therefore, “fixing” algorithms and the content teens see is important but isn’t a panacea.
This past summer, we ran a series of co-design workshops with teens. Our aim was to reimagine how to think about and support digital well-being. One teen gave voice to a concept that resonated powerfully with others. She described challenges of contemporary teen experiences as “the grind” — “a culture of needing to be productive all the time … experiencing everyone sharing what they’re doing and feeling like you’re not doing enough.” Social media speeds up the gears of grinds that feel constant and never-ending.
The grind, other teens told us, is the engine of “pressure to do the most and spread myself thin.” Really, it’s a series of pressures — a feeling that they need to do “the most” in many different domains, all at the same time.
There is a grind to “curate my own quirky yet mainstream social media and real-life persona,” and another to “look my best at all times.” Nearly everyone identified a social grind: feeling like they need to “always be socializing, and be posting about it so people know,” or “making sure that I’m posting with a variety of people to signal that I have a lot of friends” and even “prioritizing social life over everything including mental health.”
Yet alongside constant “fun,” teens simultaneously feel grinds linked to academic pressure (reinforced, they said, by people posting grades, test scores or class schedules filled with AP courses) and acute career pressure (amplified by a sense of “constantly needing to prove that I have an important plan for my life”). They described pressure to be fully informed about the news and civic issues, to be set in their interests and identities, to be funny and supportive as friends — and signal it all on social media.
Teens are not monolithic, and their grinds also vary based on their different identities and contexts. A teen who immigrated to the U.S. said “being an immigrant sort of forces a grind on me.” A queer teen talked about a grind related to “the ‘right’ way to be gay — assumptions about the way I dress and present.”
Critically, the grind is about tech, but it’s not just about the tech. It’s a collision of pressures that are developmentally linked and powerfully magnified by browsing, scrolling and posting.
Using a wider HX lens prompts questions about how we can help teens recalibrate their relationships to technology. Adults are often mired in an us-versus-them battle with teens over screens. When we assume teens want to be on their phones around the clock, we see it as our job is to save them from themselves. But teens repeatedly tell us otherwise.
“People are always glued to their phones, but so am I and I hate that,” a 15-year-old said.
“My phone distracts me from my homework and from the life moments I am currently in,” a 17-year-old said. “I know it’s a problem so I am trying to limit how much time I spend on my phone since hours and hours can go by of talking to my friends or liking pictures on Instagram.”
A 16-year-old added: “TikTok runs my life.”
To hold our attention, today’s technologies are designed to tap our most basic human desires to keep us clicking, scrolling and wanting more. For teens, app features can play on developmental sensitivities. Design collides with needs for peer connection, vulnerabilities to social pressures and natural sensitivity to questions about who they are and who they want to be. We shouldn’t mistake tech dependence as a sign that teens don’t care about optimizing their HX.
Social media companies have an urgent responsibility to do more to protect teens’ experiences. But we don’t have to wait on tech companies to begin supporting HX now.
Savvy teens tell us how they’ve become curators of their on-screen experiences, unfollowing and muting accounts that intensify the grind feelings. They actively seek out content that makes them feel seen, inspired or that makes them laugh.
They’re also intentional about when and how they use tech: Some have pacts with friends about putting their phones on “do not disturb” during in-person time or deciding not to post pictures while together because monitoring feedback becomes too distracting. During the pandemic, studying together quietly over video chat was a way to feel less lonely and more connected.
We need to help all teens develop the inclinations to focus on HX and the skills to support it.
There are things we can do as individuals to improve our HX, but bigger questions loom: Can companies adjust their platforms to protect vulnerable teens — and will they? What kinds of oversight and regulation are needed? While we debate the best path forward, millions of teens continue to scroll on. Supporting their HX can’t wait.