Why Screens Are Bad For Teens, and what our kids need from us instead

A Conversation With Christine Carter PhD CdeP 1990
and Blossom Beatty Pidduck CdeP 1992
Thacher’s Head of School Blossom BeattyPidduck and Christine Carter frequently compare notes on the latest research on the topic of helping young people manage the challenges adolescents face on their ways to becoming happy, healthy, independent, contributing adults. Christine is a sociologist and Senior Fellow at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, where she draws on scientific research to help people lead their most courageous, joyful, meaningful, and authentic lives. Her next book, The New Adolescence: Raising Happy and Successful Teens in an Age of Anxiety and Distraction, is due in February. Nowhere do Blossom’s and Christine’s areas of expertise overlap more than on the topic of the things today’s adolescents need from adults in their lives.
BBP: You recently published an article on the risks of too much screen time for teens. I appreciated it because it ended up being not just about screen time, but also about some of the seemingly unrelated challenges adolescents face today, many of which relate to and are complicated by the ubiquity of electronic devices in their lives.
CC: Yes, in that piece I focused on three risks. The first risk is that more screen time means more time alone. The paradox here is that even though our teens may be connected to hundreds of peers through instant messaging, social media, and video chat, more of them feel left out and lonely than ever before. A recent study found that 48 percent more girls and 27 percent more boys felt left out in 2015 compared to 2010. We can speculate about how this happens, but a lot of it boils down to the fear of missing out, which has become its own hashtag: #FOMO. As young people selectively post the best moments of their lives on Snapchat and Instagram, it’s easy for the followers of their feeds to conclude that everyone else is having the time of their lives while I lurk alone on my phone. Compounding the issue is that all the time spent on the phone tracking the amazing experience their peers are having is time they are not having meaningful experiences of their own. Adolescents feel lonely because they actually are alone more, often spending this time viewing content that makes them believe others are having more fun than they are. Research psychologist and demographer Jean Twenge has documented that the number of teens who get together with friends is half what it was 15 years ago. And the rate of decline has gotten steeper in recent years.
BBP: When you put it that way, boarding school seems like the perfect antidote. Our very premise means our students are spending time with their friends, working, playing, eating, and living together. On top of that, we are very purposeful in thinking about how we organize the ways we spend our time together at Thacher. Weekend FOMO just doesn’t mean much here because the kids are with their friends at whatever weekend activities are taking place—a coffeehouse, or at my house on Saturday night for Open House, making quesadillas, playing board games, and dancing or watching movies. We even unplug completely twice a year for week-long camping trips. Our intent has never been to orchestrate the kind of digital detox some people are calling for these days—we get so much more out of it than that. Time out from screens is more of a positive side effect of camping that ends up being one of the many benefits. But when you think of camping this way—as a string of days spent together in the outdoors, making new friendships and deepening others, without the distractions of technology—it sounds like a prescription for the ills we are talking about. The fact that we’ve been doing it for more than 100 years doesn’t change that.
CC: Does any of that find its way back to regular life on campus?
BBP: Our students have been insistent that we limit the use of cell phones in public places and of course the adults have eagerly supported this. As a result, the students have helped us write the policies in our student handbook and they are the ones who help ensure that we all live up to our community expectations. Now, the adults and the students don’t always agree on the extent of these limits, but this is a matter of degrees and an ongoing topic of fruitful discussion on campus as we work together to decide what sort of a community we want to be. And I don’t mean to suggest that our students don’t also struggle with social media, comparing their lives with friends who stayed at home for high school, missing home in various ways. But I do think our students enjoy some advantages that their counterparts elsewhere do not.
CC: You’ve just touched on the second of three significant ways that screens threaten the well-being of our children. There is a tight connection between social media and materialism. We see this threat borne out in data showing that students entering college today are more likely than ever before to place a high value on wealth and to place less importance on pursuing education as an end in itself. The same students are also less likely to think about or be involved in social issues and more oriented toward material consumption. And heavier users of social media are even more likely to place a high importance on material things like fancy cars and vacation homes.
BBP: Not only that, but your article cited research showing that the more materialistic people are, the more unhappy, depressed, and anxious they tend to be.
CC: Yes, materialism, despite its surface attractions, is ultimately unfulfilling. Kids who lose sight of a meaningful set of values, or never develop them in the first place, can end up feeling empty inside. What can be fulfilling, on the other hand, are so many of the things I saw my daughter doing at Thacher: caring for a horse, working hard to overcome an academic challenge or develop a new skill, being a part of a community that values what you bring and also holds you to a high standard—especially when that community is based on fundamental values like honor, fairness, kindness, and truth. You don’t need to go to Thacher to develop a meaningful set of values, but it’s as good a place to do that as any I’ve seen, though I admit to being a little biased.
BBP: Let’s talk about the third risk posed by screens.
CC: It’s insecurity and comparison. There is no way to be on social media without facing the temptation to compare yourself unfavorably to others. We see our friends on fabulous vacations, taking “wealthies” (selfies that display their wealth), eating amazing meals, looking unbelievable in new outfits, showing off new toys, smiling at parties we were not invited to, not to mention the fakery possible with Photoshop. Whose life could possibly stand up to such comparisons? And since social awareness is heightened during and immediately following puberty, teenagers are especially prone to making comparisons about status. Feeling a low or threatened social status is a core cause of depression, so again you can see how screens and social media in particular factor into some of the challenges young people can face.
BBP: What does the science tell us about how to counteract these forces?
CC: The best predictor of happiness is having a wide and deep network of real-life social connections. Not social media connections, nothing you can measure in likes and followers—those things do not predict happiness. What does predict happiness is feeling like we are a part of something larger than ourselves, feeling deeply embedded in a community of friends and family whom we interact with face-to-face. Understanding the risks of screen time is important, but the key is what you can offer in its place. The way you support adolescents is by creating rich opportunities for interactions with peers and adults, affording them opportunities to take on responsibilities and forge connections and begin to understand who they are and what they value. Let’s not forget, however, that adolescence has always been a turbulent time. It’s just that today we are seeing new factors add to the challenge and we are all working toward understanding these and what they mean for ourselves and the young people we are educating.
BBP: Of course the point here isn’t to do away with screens altogether or make them out to be evil. That’s not happening and it’s not even a good idea given all that they do for us academically and otherwise. But it is very valuable for us to understand where the threats are and what the antidotes are as we work together as families and schools to create healthy ways of harnessing the power of our devices. And learning when to leave them behind.

This article was published in the Thacher Magazine, Spring 2019 edition.

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