Behind Their Screens

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Jamilah Lemieux: This episode contains explicit language. Welcome to Mom and Dad or Fighting Slate’s parenting podcast for Monday, October 3rd, the Behind their Screens edition. I’m Jamilah Lemieux, a writer contributor to Slate’s Care and Feeding Parenting column and mom to Naima, who is nine and a half. And we live in Los Angeles.

Zak Rosen: I’m Zak Rosen. I make a podcast called The Best Advice Show. I have two kids. My oldest, Noah, is five and my youngest Amy is two. We live in Detroit, Michigan.

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Jamilah Lemieux: Today on the show, Elisabeth caught up with Harvard researchers Emily Weinstein and Carrie James about their book behind their screens. What teens are facing and adults are missing. It’s a really unique look at phone usage because they collaborated with teens on their research. We’ll be playing that interview for you. But first, we wanted to jump in to our Monday mailbag. We got this letter after our episode with Casey Davis, where a listener thinks her niece is on the spectrum, is wondering if she should tell her brother. It reads, Hi, mom and dad.

Jamilah Lemieux: I’ve been in similar situations with friends whose children appear to be displaying some neurodivergent characteristics. I am a speech language pathologist, so I’ve usually waited for the parents have been about a behavior or developmental skill first. This opens the door to asking them, What does your pediatrician said? Both my kids had early intervention services, and so I’m a huge advocate of getting an assessment, seeing where it leads. Sometimes I suggest asking the pediatrician if an assessment would be helpful in the hands of skilled therapists. A really deep conversation about these issues and diagnosing them can be handled that way. I’m not the one suggesting a diagnosis which may or may not be triggering to my friend.

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Jamilah Lemieux: Thank you, as always, for your amazing advice. Well, thank you for your very fine letter. Very nice to you. But we also got this letter. Hi there. Great show today. I wanted to add, sometimes grandparents are the most resistant to an autism diagnosis and early intervention for it. I know this because I did this. Our oldest child was diagnosed quite early, 16 months because he’d always been very fussy or colicky and acquired and had lost time acquired knowledge. Also, crucially, his mother felt very strongly that something wasn’t right. Of course, we couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to wait a few months to see if he outgrew it. I’m sure we made all of this all the more difficult for her and our son.

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Jamilah Lemieux: Now my grandson is thriving, doing his occupational therapy and speech and announcing to the world when he’s using his calm body. All credit to his mom, who knew the way the elders were reluctant to take. I do think that is a very grandparent Lee approach to a lot of things. You know, not my baby. Yeah. Well, as always, we are very appreciative of letters. Thank you so much for writing in, you guys and anyone else who would like to. You can submit comments, advice or questions of your own by emailing us at mom and dad at Slate.com. Let’s take a quick break and when we come back, we’ll dive right into our interview.

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Jamilah Lemieux: We’re back. And I’m going to pass it over to Elizabeth for her interviews about what adults are missing when it comes to teen phone use.

Carrie James: I’m Carrie James. I am a principal investigator at Harvard. Project zero.

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Emily Weinstein: I’m Emily Weinstein. I’m a principal investigator at Harvard. Project zero. And I am so excited to join you.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Well, we are just thrilled to have you guys here. You’ve written this book behind their screens, and in my opinion, it is a must read for parents of tweens and teens. I have a ten year old and it just felt like a light for me to be able to kind of see what’s coming. And you tackle so many misconceptions about teens digital life and how parents can better engage with that side of their lives, which we are definitely going to get into. But what I really love is that you guys actually talked to teens themselves. So how was it working with the teens and did anything surprise you?

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Emily Weinstein: So Kari and I have been doing research on teens and screens for over a decade. Kerry’s a sociologist by training. I’m a psychologist. And as you said, we just had this amazing opportunity. We collected insights from more than 3500 teenagers about how they navigate the digital world and what they most wish adults understood. And what was so unique about this particular project that was new for us is we had teens working side by side with us every step of the way, embedded in our research team, helping us identify the stories and insights that adults most needed to hear and really unpacking doing that interpretation with us. So we had all this survey data and then we asked teens, Are we interpreting this correctly? Did we get this right? What are we missing? What do you really wish adults understood about this topic? And the book is really the result of the stories that they wanted us to share with the world.

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Elizabeth Newcamp: I was surprised by how much the teens want our help and guidance.

Carrie James: That was a big. Headline for us to the teens actually do want our help. And it almost doesn’t matter if we don’t know, like what a Snapchat streak is or if we don’t know what an Instagram story is like. I think that that can often be a hang up for adults to get in conversations started. But the reality is that they really need our support. And we as adults, we have a lot of wisdom to offer.

Carrie James: But first, what’s really important is we really need to see it as they do really get a teen level view of what’s going on and how complicated things are. This is the most important starting place. The reality is it’s like so much more complicated than most adults realize. And so we often say, like we need new talking points going into these conversations. And actually the biggest headline is we should stop talking and slow down and really listen. But we have to open up the conversation with like a lot of curiosity and non-judgemental curiosity. What’s it like to communicate with your best friends and to meet new people through social media, apps and games? And this was a really revealing question we asked in our research What do adults most need to understand about what it’s like to grow up in this way?

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Emily Weinstein: One of the things that we heard from teens that was really interesting to us and that I don’t think we had appreciated was that when adults who they care about doubled down on talking about risks without anything else, it can leave them feeling kind of at sea and even helpless about what to do because they’re not always in as much control as those warnings assume.

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Emily Weinstein: And a really classic example of this is around digital footprints. So adults often say things like, Be careful what you post. It would last. It will last forever, or don’t post anything you wouldn’t want your grandma to see. Or you know, we have quotes in our data like your digital footprint is a tattoo for life. And in a way we really get that right. Like this is a reality of our world. Is that your posts from your teen years can travel across space and time toward totally new meanings. They can get taken out of context. The problem is that that’s actually really hard to correct for when you are a teen who a still has a prefrontal cortex that’s still developing, B has these mobile technologies that are recording everything all the time and then see and this is really crucial.

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Emily Weinstein: You are not the only author of your online digital footprint of your digital footprint. So teens told us that their friends are sometimes posting stuff that they would never want to put online or their peers. Sometimes people are recording and they don’t even know that something’s been recorded. And so you can kind of put yourself in the position of a teenager sitting in a classroom with a teacher who you really love, and they spend the whole time telling you that one post that shouldn’t be online can ruin your future career. And you’re sitting there thinking about every dumb text you send that you know your friends have screen have taken screenshots of.

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Emily Weinstein: You know, that picture that someone put online a long time ago and maybe you ask them to take it down, but is it still out there somewhere and all of a sudden you have a lot of anxiety. You’re like, If I already ruined my life. And we heard that from teens, this sense that one wrong move can ruin my life and maybe I’ve just already ruined it. And so we got really interested in this idea that, yes, we need to talk about risks and downsides, but we need warnings alongside wisdom. And we also have to really normalize conversations about what to do when you misstep, like how do you apologize and what does it look like to recover from a mistake and how do you make amends when something goes wrong?

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Emily Weinstein: We also know that when people feel shame, our natural instinct is to withdraw and hide. And so if you think about in this context, if we only talk to our kids about how high the stakes are and how bad it would be to misstep, we sort of inadvertently contribute to the sense of shame that they will feel when something goes wrong. And one of the things that we saw and that we felt, I think, as parents also doing this research is, wow, we really want to create a context where when something goes wrong, our kids will come to us so that we can help them figure out the path forward.

Elizabeth Newcamp: This is a good segue way into to talking about how screens have really created this limitless contact with friends. And and that seems to be something that I think we as parents don’t always take into account, both both the pros and importance of that, but also kind of the cons and the nuance.

Emily Weinstein: Burdens of availability were a big top was a big topic when we were talking to teens. And what’s interesting, you mentioned cyberbullying, and for sure cyberbullying is on a lot of adults radars and it’s a really big deal when it’s happening. But one of the things that really stood out to us and surprised us. I think as we were getting into teen stories with them was that a lot of what’s hard is for for many teens is not just rooted in meanness or aggression, but actually is is rooted in a sense of empathy and a desire to be a good friend. And this sense that being a good friend means being available whenever your friend needs you. And what does that actually mean in a world where we have 24 seven access to one another through our phones?

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Emily Weinstein: And so one of the things that we started recognizing was that there was this dilemma or tension that especially I think some younger teen girls were feeling around this idea that I need to be available whenever my friend needs me or I’m not a good friend, she’ll get a new best friend and replace me. And and that’s actually amplified because we know that for teens there, their friendships are really important to their emerging sense of identity and who they are. And so it actually feels like an identity threat to them to think about the idea that their friends might be mad at them or that they might get cut out of a friend group.

Emily Weinstein: And so the result is this just immense pressure they can feel. And this tension between wanting to disconnect for your own self care and on the other hand, feeling like you need to be available to be a good friend. Those are two values that are both important. Two things that we tell kids These things matter. Be a good friend, be empathetic and take care of yourself. And then they’re in these moments where they’re feeling this pull and we’re just saying things like, Just get off your phone. You’re so addicted.

Elizabeth Newcamp: So how how would you help in that moment? Like when I mean, other than hopefully you’ve you’ve followed your other steps and you have this open dialogue so you can say, you know, like I see what’s happening here, but how do you help them?

Carrie James: Teens are it’s like swimming in so much social information. We often use this metaphor of like the middle school lunchroom and how awkward it is to stand at the front of the lunchroom and figure out like which table to sit at and where do I stand and how should I be navigating. And it’s like they have that all the time on their phones that signals that sort of pressure to sit down next to someone, pressure to like then pressure to, you know, comment in an effusive way. All of those things are super relevant.

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Carrie James: So really tuning into the often nuanced ways in which this is playing out for our kids is really important and and, you know, really being empathetic and perform closeness for a larger audience of peers. We remember what it was like to worry about our friendships and be really committed to preserving those friendships and ensuring that they were always in a good place so we can tune into that.

Carrie James: Another feature about being there for others and the puzzles and dilemmas that faces when kids are struggling. When you have a friend who’s struggling with a mental health crisis is we really need to encourage our kids to pay attention to like red flag feelings the feeling that something isn’t right here. And so it may not be a close friend, but it may be a digital cry for help from a peer that they’re looking at on a Snapchat or Instagram story and trying to make sense of, is this is this a threat or is this is this person suggesting that they’re heading towards suicide? Potentially?

Carrie James: We need to encourage them to pay attention to those moments where they feel a pause and uncertainty about what to do and not to just scroll on from that point forward to turn to ideally a trusted adult to help them gauge the the level of gravity of the situation. If they don’t feel comfortable turning to an adult, at least try to triangulate with their friends, with their peers to really get a sense of are you seeing this as a warning sign as well?

Carrie James: Emily, what would you add to that.

Emily Weinstein: To really concrete things we can do? Mentioned one of them, but first, just validate the struggle. That’s a starting point that will then pave the way. We found when you start with validation, even if your instinct is to roll your eyes, when you start by just acknowledging like, that’s really hard, it changes the whole tone going into the conversation. The second thing is that a barrier that we heard from from teens around setting those boundaries and being able to actually do it is frankly not even knowing what to say. And so helping teens actually come up with the language of how can I be kind and compassionate and also get my needs met. That is that is a really important thing that adults can actually do to help. And then when teens feel like they know what they could say in a certain situation, they ultimately feel more agency and more empowered to actually do it and to set those boundaries.

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Emily Weinstein: I also think that creative solutions, even if in our minds they’re only halfway there, can be really helpful. So if a teen says that a barrier to. Connecting is their best friend is going through a really bad breakup and is just in a not good place and they feel like they need to be available to them. But then you’re sitting in the car and the notifications are buzzing every 32 seconds and your entire family time is getting disrupted. Maybe you can be open to a compromise. Like could you silence notifications from everyone but your best friend or could we silence your notifications? But could you tell your best friend if she really needs you, she can call you and you’ll leave your phone on ring for her. But thinking about those creative solutions and understanding what are the barriers that are getting in the way of my team feeling like they can disconnect and how can I help them make progress toward our shared goals.

Emily Weinstein: I guess that’s actually the last thing. Like shared goals is such a biggie. We could one of the things that was such an aha moment for us was we started poring through these reactions that teens were having about their habits and realizing that their concerns sounded exactly like the concerns we had been hearing from adults. They were saying things like, I don’t want to waste my whole childhood in front of a screen and like, I don’t understand why, but I keep falling asleep with my phone in my hand and I know I should have better sleep habits. And why does the app tick tock run my life? And we started having this kind of funny feeling like people are not going to believe us. That these are real quotes are real kids.

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Emily Weinstein: But I think, first of all, it was easier for them to see them to us because we were not going to be the ones to double down on any restrictions. It was, you know, a lot of the data we were collecting were anonymous. But actually what we recognized that even though teens will resist a lot of our efforts to help them regulate their habits when we try and do it from a top down way, actually they share on a deeper level a lot of these desires for themselves.

Emily Weinstein: When we realize that we can actually pivot the way we approach these conversations and we start with questions like what kind of habits do you want to have around your phone? Like, how do you want to feel about being away from your device? Like, how do you want this social media stuff to fit into your life? What do you want to make sure it doesn’t interfere with? And then we’re actually in a position to use the habits that they’ve named as important to them as a starting point for helping them think about what we can do to help them get there. That is so different than us.

Emily Weinstein: Just saying, here’s the rule you’re going to follow from now on. Instead, it’s like you told me that it’s really important to you to get a good night of sleep before your big sports games. And you told me that it is almost impossible not to fall asleep on your phone when you have it in your room. Like what? What are some ideas you have? What’s an experiment we could try for even just a few games, a few days to see if it helps.

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Carrie James: It’s a real pivot in our role, so adults too often find themselves in the role of referee when it comes to talk him were blowing the whistle when they’ve gone out of bounds or gone over time. But we really need to see ourselves as more like coaches, like helping our kids strategize around the hard plays and the real struggles and the polls to the screen. And then we’re in a much better position to really support them in the ways they actually need.

Elizabeth Newcamp: I love this, and I think to me this is like why your book felt like a must read, because it does really say like, Hey, it’s not this fight that we’re making it out to be. We’ve just framed it wrong. I definitely do not want to leave that without talking about sexting just a little bit, because I think I think this is something that you guys address that we don’t hear a lot about, and specifically that I think most parents feel like, well, sort of take this, let’s say, abstinence approach to sexting, like, well, we just don’t do this. And then we think that teens don’t understand why they shouldn’t do it. But your research shows like they absolutely understand why they shouldn’t do it, but they still do it.

Carrie James: Emily and our moms have daughters. So this is you know, this is really hard and challenging territory for us. But we name in the book Nine Reasons Why Teens Sext, even when they Know it’s risky. And some of those reasons are really on the wanted and consensual end. And it made me, you know, be scary to hear that. But that’s a reality.

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Carrie James: But there really worries some end of the spectrum is where they feel a lot of pressure.

Carrie James: So pressure to send sex when they don’t want to, pressures to boys, naming pressures to ask for sex, even if they didn’t feel good about that but pressures because they expected their their friends expected them to be asking for nudes and girls who felt pressure to send them because they didn’t want to disappoint in a relationship or they didn’t want to alienate someone that they had a crush on and wanted to feel close to, or even worse, felt a sense of threat around around sharing a nude.

Emily Weinstein: Yeah. Let me just say that if you are less. If your listeners are hearing this and just like broke out in a mild sweat carry carrier. And I feel that and also we were giving a talk two days ago and I watched as the moderator, it was often we don’t have a full audience right in front of us because we’re on Zoom. And I watched as the moderator said, okay, I want to talk about sexting and like everyone’s tense stuff in their seats. And I think that we have that reaction. And actually part of having good conversations is figuring out how we can almost like take a deep breath in ourselves before we enter those conversations. But one of the things that we came away with was your kids need you to have this conversation with them about sexting and and even if you’re sure they don’t, they still do because this is actually part of the ethos. It’s it’s part of the kind of culture. And even if they are not personally sexting with someone else or receiving someone else’s sex.

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Emily Weinstein: One of the things that was so interesting to us was starting to hear, for example, from from boys who are saying, the norm in my friend group is that if anyone receives a nude, they send it in our group chat or hearing from, you know, girls whose moms were like, My daughter is definitely not sexting. And that we would you know, we talk to that that daughter and she’s like, well, yeah, I mean, I’m not sexting, but like I have tons of nudes on my phone from my friends because every time my best friend is going to send a picture to her boyfriend, she sent it. She sends it to me first to make sure it’s okay. And that actually really matters because as soon as you start having other people’s content on your phone, you are implicated in this.

Emily Weinstein: And so one of the things that we really, really I think like wanted to bold and underline after our conversations with teens was that adults are using just this one word, sexting, to talk about behaviors that fall across this pretty wide spectrum that, as Carrie said, spans from totally consensual and wanted to, you know, completely non-consensual forwarding of other people’s pictures around. And the risk of the way we have approached it is that when we just start and stop the conversation with just don’t sext, we actually miss addressing the reasons why. On the one hand, some teens are really wanting to sext in the middle kind of area of the spectrum. Why they’re sexting, even if they don’t want to, because they feel a lot of pressure. And again, back to that communication point, they aren’t sure how to deal with someone’s request.

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Emily Weinstein: But also we fail to then say really clearly, if someone sends you a picture, you should never forward it to someone else, period. You should not send it to your group chat. You should not show your best friend even on your screen so that there’s no record. You sent it to them. These are really important conversations that are interwoven with consent. They’re interwoven with, frankly, in some places of the U.S. with legal consequences and implications. And so we really have to start having these conversations early and often, although although we got that correct.

Elizabeth Newcamp: Lastly, if you wanted parents to take away just one thing and tell their kind of fellow parents, well, each of you share what that would be if you had just like one take away two to go spread.

Carrie James: A really important thing that we learned as researchers that carries over into our parenting and all the other things that we do is this small but really meaningful pivot. We often start with the technology, like adults say, like Instagram is like, is Instagram making you depressed? Or like, is TikTok pulling you into a toxic rabbit hole of doomscrolling or just of like wasting your time on senseless ten second videos? But we’ve really learned from the teens who’ve worked closely with us the importance of starting with what they’re experiencing in general in their lives, the good and the hard stuff, and then trying to identify the role that technology is playing in that. What is it amplifying for your particular kid?

Carrie James: And in some cases it’s a really important playing, a really important amplifying role in their wellbeing and supporting their wellbeing are specific features of what they’re doing on tech, are supporting their wellbeing, and in other cases it’s really for the worse in terms of their overall sense of self and wellbeing. And and so that pivot, that essential question around what are you experiencing and then what is the role of tech in that is incredibly powerful.

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Jamilah Lemieux: We’ll be sure to link behind their screens in the show notes if you want to learn more. We’re going to take another quick break. And when we come back, we’ll get to everyone’s favorite recommendations.

Jamilah Lemieux: Zach, it is finally time for recommendations. What do you want people to check out this week?

Zak Rosen: Are you a Bjork person?

Jamilah Lemieux: I’m not like. The converse, you know, like I’ve enjoyed her on occasion, but I don’t go seeking her out.

Zak Rosen: Yeah. I’m also actually not like a massive fan. I don’t listen to her music all the time, but I, I’ve always been fascinated with her. She seems otherworldly and just like one of these creators who who doesn’t need to compromise at this point, who just like, maybe even like Beyoncé level where she is, just like, you know it, you can’t compare her to anyone else and she has this amazing career.

Zak Rosen: And so she has a new album out and there is just this great profile written by a writer named Jazz Monroe in Pitchfork called Bjork Mother, Daughter, Force of Nature, where the writer goes to Bjork’s like Rural Hideout Studio Oasis, where you can see a volcano from her amazing cabin.

Zak Rosen: There is this line that really struck me that I thought made it relevant for for a mom and dad. Audience. But Bjork is talking about her mom in the piece, and then she’s also talking about raising her daughter. And Bjork says about her own mom, she says, My mother didn’t talk so much about her feelings. I would always want to understand how I got made and why my parents were not still together, and she didn’t want to talk about that. So I decided to tell my daughter a lot of stuff. Another writer says she believes children can withstand more than their parents tend to think. And Bjork says, if you don’t know something, it becomes this taboo that gets a lot more energy than it actually has.

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Zak Rosen: So I’ve tried to share with limits. I want to take the mystery off some of my choices. And I really love that. I love that that approach. I know it’s something we’ve talked about on this show before, but it was beautifully expressed by by Bjork here. And just this notion of like, come on, let’s let’s open up, you know, with with some limits. But I think the more we open up, the less our kids are going to be angsty about it or, you know, interested in kind of rebelling from our, you know, omission of some some big thing. So it was just a really good reminder and a beautifully written piece. And there’s some really strange cool visuals in that profile as well. We will link to it in our show notes.

Jamilah Lemieux: I’m going to check that out. Sounds really interesting. I love that quote.

Zak Rosen: What about you?

Jamilah Lemieux: Well, I am recommending a book called This is Major Notes on Diana Ross Dark Girls and Being Dope by a writer by the name of Shayla Lawson. This is the book I wish I was writing. I would like to just put my name on the cover and be like, There is the book. She’s already said so much. I really don’t have anything else to add. It’s just really great and it’s truly like it’s a book of essays about black womanhood and girlhood and pop culture, and it’s just really fascinating and beautifully written.

Jamilah Lemieux: The author is also a poet that really, you know, there’s poetry integrated into the text and just in how she constructs her ideas. And I think that’s essentially what I’m attempting to do, which is what a lot of, you know, I think my contemporaries are attempting to do, which is, you know, issuing kind of a plea on behalf of black women and girls, you know, for just reconsideration. And it’s just really beautifully and artfully done.

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Zak Rosen: What’s the author’s name?

Jamilah Lemieux: Shayla. S.H. y la Shayla Lawson.

Zak Rosen: Are you a big Diana Ross fan?

Jamilah Lemieux: I am not. But this. I will say that the book made me think about her in ways that I hadn’t before. You know, I think part of me not being a big Diana fans, my mother wasn’t a big Diana fan, but I think her significance is massive. Shayla does such a really good job of contextualizing it.

Zak Rosen: That’s cool. I’m glad that there’s some some strong Diana Ross analysis happening. You know, whatever it is, 50 years after she was at her her peak.

Jamilah Lemieux: Absolutely. It’s it’s really good. And it even dives into just the kind of way she was regarded as a diva and, you know, kind of villainized a bit in the media. It’s really good. Well, that’s it for us. We’ll be back on your feeds on Thursday, so be sure to tune in then. And while you’re at it, please subscribe to the show and give us a rating and review on Apple or Spotify. This episode of Mom and Dad or Fighting is produced by Rosemary Belson and Kristie, Taiwo Mac and Julia for Zak Rosen and Jamilah Lemieux. Thank you for listening.