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Harvard Researchers Investigate Digital Well-Being of Teens

The Center for Digital Thriving, which opens next month at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, will conduct research with various universities, mental health professionals, educators and families.

A person in a white doctor's coat with a stethoscope around their neck holding a blue folder in one hand and extending their other arm with their palm facing up. Floating above their palm is al illustration of a human brain in white.
At Harvard University, researchers want to actualize a future where young people can thrive in a tech-filled world.

Getting there will involve thousands of conversations, dozens of boots on the ground and collaborations with various universities, mental health professionals, educators and families across the U.S. Although it sounds like a massive initiative, the path to success is clear, a program leader says.

“Bring young people’s voices to the center of the conversation,” explained Emily Weinstein, who, with colleague Carrie James, founded the Center for Digital Thriving at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “Double down on youth voices.”

The center’s official launch is planned for October, but some of the work has already started, including a series of digital well-being videos developed at Harvard that are available for free on the Common Sense Education website. The nonprofit agency is a partner in the youth social media use research space. One of the videos, for example, examines “think traps,” where young people get caught up in believing others are happier or better off than them.

As part of a yearslong study, Weinstein and James interviewed 3,500 teenagers across the country to get answers to a key question: What are adults missing, or misunderstanding? Their findings were published last year in a book Behind Their Screens.

According to the book’s website, the two researchers dispelled common myths about teens and social media with respect to depression, “sexting” and excessive screen time.

“Adults are worried about teens and their screen time. But so are teens,” the website says, noting that parents need to ditch the us-versus-them mindset. “Instead, learning how to embrace an ‘us-and-them’ approach helps build connection and healthy tech habits.”

Weinstein cautions against heavy restrictions of social media use or blaming the current adolescent mental health epidemic entirely on social media or devices. Families, she explained, would be better off if parents discussed their child’s social media use in more positive and engaging ways. Be more of a coach, she says, and less of a referee.

“Learn with asking instead of assuming,” Weinstein said. “What are you loving about social media, and what do you think is hard? Ask open-ended questions instead of just judging.”

And it goes without saying that parents should not be glancing at a phone themselves as they discuss their child’s experiences with technology. Weinstein said this “technoference” must be minimized.

In their previous research, James and Weinstein were surprised to learn that the dynamics of teen friendships where technology plays a role are very complicated. Most are likely at any given time to have a friend who is struggling with mental health issues, and teens are unsure of how to be appropriately supportive, Weinstein said, adding that she hopes continued research will produce more evidence-based resources to deal with this issue.

They also found that text messages that were marked “read” without replies from the receiver — “leaving me on read” — was a common anxiety trigger because the teens, as they awaited a response, assumed what the other person was thinking, and as more time passed without a reply, the more negative the thoughts became. The concept of cognitive distortions, rooted in psychology, has existed for decades and can help people avoid unnecessary tension, Weinstein said.

“Now we need to study what resources work,” she said. “We don’t need to wait for more evidence. The stakes are high — it’s adolescent mental health.”
Aaron Gifford has several years of professional writing experience, primarily with daily newspapers and specialty publications in upstate New York. He attended the University at Buffalo and is based in Cazenovia, NY.