Don’t Shoot the iMessenger

Designed by Crystal Nattoo

We must take a more integrative and compassionate approach to our loved ones’ screen time.

I spend a lot of time talking to parents about their kids’ tech use, and I spend a lot of time talking to kids about their parents’ tech use. Without fail, the most common question I hear from both sides is, “Why are they always on their phones?”

There’s no shortage of worry about children’s tech use. In part fueled by films like The Social Dilemma, you can easily find dozens of headlines declaring a generation of young adults “ruined” by smartphones and “addicted” to screen-time. These concerns about the consequences of teen media use also extend into settings far more intimate than the news, like household arguments about phones at the dinner table and taking devices away as punishments. 

However, the headlines often miss that teens are also worried about their parents’ tech use. The ability to be “always on” means more work calls, more emails during dinner, more texts from colleagues and friends, and maybe a little Facebook and Candy Crush too. This is especially true during the pandemic, where screen-time has dramatically increased – for all of us.

As a researcher in Stanford’s Social Media Lab, part of my job consists of talking with kids and parents about how they navigate the role of technology in their lives. During these conversations, I’ve seen that kids are highly tuned in to how much the adults in their lives are using their devices. As one fifth-grader said, “I can see my Mom texting under the table when we’re eating and she thinks I don’t know.” Even in high school, teens can feel like their parents’ use of technology makes it hard to have quality time. Liza, a senior preparing to go to college, talked about how she struggles to connect with her mom. “All of her free time is iPad time,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I could get closer to her, but I just don’t really know how to do that when she’s always on YouTube or doing work stuff.”

Truthfully, our relationship with technology isn’t cut and dry; everyone can use their devices in healthy and harmful ways. Sometimes, it’s so easy to get caught up in the fear and worry about how technology may be affecting young people that we forget it can affect grown-ups, too. In addition to being fueled by a healthy dose of parental care and concern, research in psychology suggests that this is actually a part of a larger pattern of how we think about technology: people tend to think we reap its benefits, while others may be subject to its influence.

As a third-party having conversations with both parents and kids, I was surprised by how much they felt social media was a helpful tool for themselves but problematic for the other. I became fascinated with why they weren’t seeing eye to eye. At first, I thought this might be a relatively simple question. Maybe some parents and some kids are just not good at managing their interactions with technology. Could this be just a question of individual differences?

A few days later, I found myself at home for break. I was working on my computer, attempting to make light conversation while my little brother, a high school student, was scrolling on his phone while we waited for dinner to cook. I could see him deeply absorbed in his phone, swiping and tapping and laughing occasionally. As the timer on our Instant Pot hit the 30-minute mark, I was getting annoyed with his one-word responses when I realized I had no idea what he was doing – although I had assumed he was on Snapchat or some other phone game.

I realized the best way to get him more engaged was to start a conversation. So, I asked, “Whatcha doing?”

Taking off his glasses, he sighed as he rubbed the lenses with his shirt. “There’s so much stuff going on right now,” he said and proceeded to show me his phone. I was blown away: it was so much more than the YouTube or video game I had been expecting. He was working on a Google Doc with 15 other high-schoolers to prepare for an upcoming debate tournament, figuring out math homework and upcoming plans with his study group-chat, listening to song recommendations friends were sending him through Spotify, checking his email for updates from his school club, texting our mom assurances we weren’t burning down the house making dinner, and so much more.

It was my first real glimpse into his online life. I was shocked by how little I knew about what he had been doing all this time. While he had some fun apps like Messenger or Snapchat open, I was surprised that they weren’t the main things he was using. When I told him so, he looked at me with a quizzical smile. “You thought I was on social media this whole time? I thought you’ve been on Facebook this whole time!”

At first, I wondered how could he think that? Obviously, what I was doing on my computer was meaningful: I was doing homework, emailing teachers, and working on my research! However, there was no way he could have known that – and no way for me to know what he was doing, either. The smartphone is essentially a black box: we don’t know what others are doing on them, or why. Even though they can fit in our pockets, smartphones have the ability to take us into rich, digital worlds that others cannot see in the moment. Unlike TVs in the living room or a big monitor on a desk, it’s hard to tell what other people are doing on their smartphones – even with very good eyesight and very little regard for social norms.

While we knew all the important work we were doing on our side of the screen – and why – all we could see was the other person staring at theirs and assumed they were just fiddling around. This experience isn’t limited to just one pair of siblings. Think about the last time you saw someone on their phones and figured they were texting or on social media. Could you really tell or was it just an assumption?

This lack of understanding of the reasons for others’ device use contributes to some of the finger-pointing I’ve seen in parent-child relationships. In our research on social media mindsets, we found that people were more likely to believe that their own use of social media was beneficial and more likely to believe that others’ use was harmful. What we need to recognize, however, is that it’s easy for us to point fingers at others’ media use– to see the minutes or hours they spend in front of a screen as time wasted, rather than time well spent – when we don’t know what it is they are doing. Though it may sound obvious, we know why we do things. Understanding our motives for scrolling, swiping, and texting gives us the context we need to contextualize our media use as valuable. In contrast, we don’t usually know others’ motivations for spending time on screens – making it that much easier to make negative assumptions about what they’re doing. Just like I did with my brother, and just like many parents and teens do with one another. 

No one is truly at fault here; these are natural growing pains. Technology is new to the human scene, and we haven’t had the time to learn how to adjust to its presence in our lives and within our families. The truth is, we don’t really know the “best ways” to use technology or how to avoid making assumptions about other people’s use – especially when we care about or are concerned about others. However, what we do know is that answering the solutions to these questions needs parents and children to come into conversation together and to better understand each other’s perspectives.

At the simplest level, we can be more understanding about how we use technology in our lives. Instead of falling into pointing fingers and trying to determine whether teens are worse off than adults or the other way around, we should recognize that everyone can use technology in ways that are harmful and problematic, or helpful and meaningful. We can help each other think through the ways that we use technology that bring the most joy and value to our lives – whether that’s making content with friends, watching videos for fun, or catching up on some emails and texts.

Another way we can do this is by being curious, not furious. Ask the teens in your life what they’re doing on their phones, and you might be surprised. It is likely to be more interesting and engaging than you previously thought. You can even share parts of your online life with them. By approaching others’ technology use with curiosity and genuinely listening to what they have to say, we can gain a better understanding about what our friends and family do online, and why.

Rewired is a digital magazine where technology and society meet. We’re committed to curating stories that amplify diverse perspectives and bridge disciplines.
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