Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Social Media

What Teens Say About Their Tech Use

From worries about deep fake videos to shaming, teens share tech concerns.

Key points

  • The multiple pressures of being watched, performing, and navigating tricky situations online is overwhelming.
  • Children are aware that their parents aren't in touch with what is now "normal" in online spaces.
  • Children may attempt to work through challenging situations on their own to avoid overreaction or shaming.
  • Complex, honest, and reality-based conversations can help youth navigate the trickier parts of living online.
Adrian Swancar/Unsplash
Source: Adrian Swancar/Unsplash

In the last three months, I’ve been honored to listen to the experiences of hundreds of high school and college students up and down the West Coast. They have plenty to say about their relationship with technology and what it’s like to try to navigate digital spaces. These listening sessions have renewed my passion for talking about tech in ways that are neither shame- nor abstinence-based and have filled me with compassion and respect for today’s youth.

Today, I’ll report the findings of these listening sessions with youth between the ages of 13 and 20. In the coming weeks, I’ll offer tips on how to have the kind of hard conversations that I believe are our best hope for helping teens navigate their very challenging realities.

Here’s what I heard.

1. Youth are aware of and concerned about how hard it is to separate from their phones.

They exchange strategies for how to moderate their use and stories about how powerless they are to change things since school, work, and even their hobbies require them to be tethered to their phones.

Young adults feel overwhelmed by too much digital stimulation and the difficult experiences they have online. They are hesitant to talk with the grownups in their lives about these realities for fear that they’ll be shamed, belittled, or offered reactivity rather than help and empowerment. They believe that their parents do not have a realistic understanding of the kinds of difficulties they face online, and their experience bears this out.

As a result, young people try to work through increasingly difficult and complex challenges on their own, believing that involving a parent or grown person will only lead to an escalation of the situation or feelings of shame around them.

2. At a certain point, parental filtering is ineffective and actually creates a false sense of “security.”

Our youth are adept with technology and know how to get online in many ways. With our children’s school, entertainment, extracurricular, and work lives requiring them to be plugged in, it’s unrealistic to think that they will avoid sticky situations and unfortunate content…no matter how many parental controls have been enabled.

In my experience, it’s not possible to achieve full filtering of harmful content or protection online. When children are young and learning to navigate technologies built for unlimited exploration, filters, blocking and surveilling technologies, and parental controls are a primary part of making the digital experience safe. As children grow into young adulthood, however, these interventions will not be able to protect them fully.

Because of this, it’s crucial that parents initiate and consistently return to open conversations about the complex topics of violence, sex, hate speech, the reality of filters and body image, and online bullying. They need to know that the adults in their lives can handle these complex and difficult topics and are available to help them strategize about how to respond when they find themselves in troubling spaces.

3. The communication expectations in digital spaces are complex and leave youth feeling watched and on edge.

Texting is less common than direct messaging within specific apps (where parents don’t know to look), and bullying often happens in apps or individuals’ stories, both places where children’s caregivers don’t have access. This means that most harmful exchanges and content happen outside the purview of wise elders, which has a double cost. First, it means that parents don’t have a realistic view of how brutal online spaces can be, and second, it’s up to the youth to bring them forward and risk escalation or shame.

Some popular apps share the location of users on maps that are accessible to any user. If this service is turned on, people can access the user’s location even if they aren’t currently on the app, leaving them vulnerable in many ways.

Youth have shared with me that there’s a lot of added pressure when people are “watching” them and, at times, shaming them in online spaces. For instance, Karen texts Rob, and Rob doesn’t respond. Karen notices that Rob commented on a friend’s post within the time he hasn’t responded to her, so she comments on his comment with something like “Why are you ghosting me?” or worse, making a private issue quite public and outside of Rob’s control.

The number of places youth feel “watched” and vulnerable (to be commented on or called out) leads to a high level of anxiety about missing something that could hurt or disadvantage them. This means that FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) isn’t just about what activities they’re missing. Instead, it’s a constant, ambient awareness that they might miss harmful content that concerns them.

4. Youth and young adults want (sometimes desperately) to talk about the reality of digital bullying, influencers, and violent and sexualized content.

The pressure to compete for attention in spaces that are wholly curated is massive for our youth. They compare their appearance, their body shape and size, their status, the number of followers and responses, and more. They are bombarded with snarky and often violent content. Sexually explicit content is impossible to avoid, and they are navigating all of this without fully wired brains. If parents don’t understand that life online is tricky to navigate, they are likely to over-criticize their child’s engagement and dismiss the extremely sophisticated ways in which all children are set up to struggle in these spaces that are created to generate wealth and power for tech companies.

5. Algorithms are unforgiving.

If youth have dipped (intentionally or not) into troubling content once or twice, their algorithm won’t let them forget by continuing to present them with more of the same. Children who are assured that their parents will not overreact if they come to them for help with trying to avoid this troubling content (e.g., porn, violence, mental health diagnostics, disinformation, eating disorder tips, etc.) carry a much lighter load in regards to making their time online positive.

6. Our youth are profoundly aware of the impact of advances in AI video technologies and the ways that they could be targeted by them.

With a single digital image, a person can engage readily available apps to create a fully animated 60-second video. For young women, the videos made of them by others are most typically sexually explicit. This happened to Taylor Swift earlier this year, and students know it’s becoming easier and easier to do. They also know that once something like this is online, it’s virtually impossible to take down.

Multiple times, female-identified high school students asked me what they should do if anyone were to make an AI-generated risque or pornographic video of them.

Too often, in my 20 years of researching the topic of technology and health, parents underestimate their own children’s exposure to challenging content or situations online. These listening sessions have reminded me of how important it is for parents and other adults to acquaint themselves with the very wide range of experiences that are now normal for children to encounter.

There are plenty of wonderful things that occur in online spaces, and it’s important to celebrate those. It’s equally necessary for adults to listen more and talk or judge less in regard to their children’s digital lives.

For parents or adults in the lives of children

I believe that the most important protective factor for our children is open, honest, complex communication with grown people who will deal with their own fears and reactivity in order to be sturdy enough to help their children navigate a world that is, sadly, often outside of their control.

When your young person comes to you with an experience that you’re afraid of or angry about, take a few deep breaths and ask them to tell you all about it. When they have, take a few more deep breaths and calm yourself. Resist easy (and, likely, unrealistic) “answers.” Ask them if they’d like to work together to address the situation. They don’t need you to have all the answers; they need you to help them work through their emotions and make wise decisions about how to respond.

In regards to AI and fake videos (which will only become easier to make as the election nears), familiarize yourself with this amazing site created by a 15-year-old young woman who found herself the victim of one of these AI-generated videos, then talk to your children about it (all genders need to talk about this). You’ll find ample information and resources at this site. To learn even more about this topic, check out this New York Times piece.

Check back in the coming weeks for practical ideas and actionable tips regarding the nuts and bolts of having hard conversations about technology.

More from Doreen Dodgen-Magee, Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today