How many times have you heard your colleagues bemoan the tech habits of younger team members? How many times have you heard teachers or parents talk about how “kids today can’t pay attention” because their attention is the length of a TikTok video? It is easy to look at adolescents’ social media and texting practices in particular and shake your head at the drama without really understanding the intensity of coming of age in such a hyper-connected world, which compounds all the pressures of adolescence. As adults, we might struggle to fully understand their intentions and experience.
New research in a fascinating new book, Behind Their Screens, by Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, two Harvard-based researchers, offers an up-close look at how teenagers actually text, direct message, and comment on one another’s posts. Their research team surveyed over 3,000 U.S. teenagers as well as working with a 22-member teen advisory council that helped them interpret their research. The book makes a compelling case for partnering with young people in order to understand young people. Their research brings to light some phenomena that demonstrate how highly attuned teens are—how precisely attuned—to one another’s responses and their own behavior.
James and Weinstein detail, with many wonderfully revealing quotes from teenagers, the ways texting can be a site for teens to obsess and deliberate—especially with new friendships, crushes, and potential romantic partners. Teens worry about responding too quickly—they don’t want to seem too eager, or worse, “desperate.” Thus young people are balancing and titrating their investment in getting a response and showing some interest. They want to “seem available but not too available.” (Anyone who has hesitated before sending an email, or reworded a text, or waited uncomfortably for a response, will find plenty to empathize with.)
Weinstein and James report that some teens even schedule delays after receiving a text message to regulate a response time. Reading in Behind Their Screens about the emotional labor they detail about both managing response time and obsession over other people’s response times, especially with an important new friendship or a new romance, will give you empathy for teens.
The authors also describe the innovative teenage hack of a “half swipe” on Snapchat—where you can half swipe to preview a message but the sender won’t know you’ve seen it—to allow the recipient extra time to compose a response before the sender knows the recipient has seen it. It is a lot of effort but also shows that the importance of communication (and status) in teenage relationships in some ways has not changed. The pressures baked into some features and app affordances can add additional pressures on teenagers. Consider, for instance, Snapchat streaks, which tracks how many consecutive days two users have exchanged messages on the app. An hourglass appears if you are about to lose your streak. This can be stressful, as it is such a visible sign of relationship continuity and mutuality—and no one wants to be the one who drops the ball.
If you want a more narrative introduction to teen texting practices, or want to share the experience with your local teenager, try watching Netflix’s Heartstopper, a charming queer romance between two boys in a U.K. high school. As the unlikely friendship between the bookish nerd Charlie and the assumed-to-be-straight rugby player Nick blossoms, we see the boys initially DM on Instagram, when they don’t have each other’s numbers. The boys take great pains over composing just the right short messages. We see both of them type, erase, and type new messages and then agonize over the wait, the three dots. When Charlie composes and recomposes, with a long pause, we see Nick swiping up “just to check” when waiting endlessly for a response. Later, when the relationships are more established, we see their texts fly back and forth with far less hesitation. And a delightful scene where they plan a double date with two other “local gays” shows the dynamic of group texting with great accuracy. Reading Behind Their Screens shows how right the Heartstopper producers got it. (The show is adapted from the Heartstopper graphic novels, whose author, 28-year-old Alice Oseman, definitely gets it.)
As the teens who are growing up now head into college and the workforce, it is important for parents, employers, and educators to cultivate empathy and compassion for the ways these technologies have shaped young people’s experiences, relationships, and sense of self.
Devorah Heitner is the author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World and the forthcoming Growing Up in Public. Her writing has appeared inThe New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time.