May 25, 2023
Balancing life on and off “screen” is a defining project of what it means to be human in today’s tech-centric world. Questions abound: can you build fulfilling relationships fully on-screen? How “real” is your digital presence? How much do influencers influence your life? How do you appreciate the world in front of you when virtually you can be anywhere? How much is too much screentime?
These are questions adults are trying hard to figure out — while simultaneously answering them for their children. This is an inordinate, perhaps unprecedented, challenge for parents and educators, especially those of adolescents. And as each new report on teen mental health makes clear: the stakes couldn’t be higher.
But here’s what I see as the biggest issue: we aren’t talking honestly enough about the absurdity of the task. Instead, we are operating as if it is doable and expected for adults to effectively regulate an adolescent’s digital life. We need to step back and ask: is this even possible in the first place?
As an educator and researcher, I think the fundamental, and terrifying, answer to this question is no. Given that, we need a new strategy for teens and tech — and for the adults striving to protect them.
Long-term, I expect and hope that government regulation will be a critical piece of the solution; but for today, we could begin to develop a new strategy by answering two questions. First, why are we pretending that it is, in fact, possible to protect adolescents from the infinity of digital life? Second: what levers are in our control when it comes to helping adolescents manage these new frontiers, and how can we use them?
The Basic Challenge: Adolescence Meets Digital Infinity
When it comes to tech / life balance, boundaries are easier to draw in childhood — before kids have screens of their own, or while they are using highly regulated devices. But with adolescence comes what I think about as digital infinity.
Here’s what I mean: when I was in middle and high school, my world expanded according to the boundaries my teachers and parents set. You have outdoor recess but have to stay on campus; you can get ice cream but you only have five dollars; you can have Instant Messenger but leave the chatroom if a stranger enters. These lines were mostly visible: if a teacher saw you all off-campus at 10 a.m.,…