On a snowy winter day, we were in the library of a charter middle school in Portland, Maine. It was the first of many school visits where we teamed up with teachers to try out classroom approaches for teaching thorny digital topics, from friendship challenges to civic dilemmas.
We started the session as we often do—whether the audience is teachers, parents, or tech insiders—by naming a collection of common messages that adults convey to adolescents about digital life:
- Think before you post!
- Don’t sext!
- Stand up to cyberbullies!
- Stand up for what you believe in (But also: Don’t get involved!
- Online arguments are a waste of time!)
- Be honest
- Be kind!
- Be there for friends in need
- Get off your phone
- You are what you post; now, tomorrow, and in the future
These messages are well-intentioned and in many cases on point. They’re shared with teens by adults who truly care about them and want to ensure that young people are staying safe and on a path to a successful life. Still, these messages fall short. We don’t mean they are inaccurate or wrong; we mean they aren’t enough. Sometimes, they even backfire, amplifying anxiety without clarifying what teens can or should do when challenges come up. Today’s teens need more than broad principles and panicked warnings.
So what do they need? To be sure, schools that create space for digital literacy education. Tech designers who reprioritize for youth well-being (and policies that ensure it). Caring adults who stay alert to digital dilemmas, set useful boundaries, and offer empathy, connection, and validation. All of this is crucial, but it’s still not enough. We also need to find ways to support their very sense of agency.
Psychologists have long recognized that we as individuals fare better when we believe that our actions can influence what happens and when we can shape an outcome through our behavior—in short, when we have agency. Conversely, routinely feeling out of control can threaten our well-being.
In so many areas of digital life, we see evidence from teens of a struggle to feel and to be in control—to have digital agency.
There are true benefits and upsides of digital life for adolescents. Social media meets teens where they’re at developmentally: primed for self-expression, exploration of their interests and values, connection with peers, and curiosity about the broader world. The struggle shows up as they fight to regulate digital habits amid powerful design pulls and developmental sensitivities. It surfaces when features like Snapchat streaks compel ongoing exchanges they may not want to keep up. But also:
- When someone asks for nudes and they feel like every decision (including saying “no”) is a lose-lose.
- When they care about a struggling friend but also want to disconnect.
- When they care about a civic issue but recognize the perils of posting and of staying silent.
- When they feel trapped in unwanted filter bubbles that determine what they see.
- When they are told to take care of their digital footprints, but they can’t prevent peers from posting things they would never want online.
- When they fret about privacy risks but face a reality where many risks are out of their hands.