Experts don’t agree about kids and tech (and that’s okay)

by | Sep 24, 2023

On the eve of welcoming a new school year and a new group of undergraduates to the University of Washington campus, I flew to the “other” Washington—Washington, D.C.—to learn about the latest research on kids and tech at the Digital Media and Developing Minds International Scientific Congress. Hosted by Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development, the Congress brought together researchers, practitioners (including pediatricians and child and adolescent psychiatrists), policymakers, and policy advocates.

With such a diverse mix of professional roles, it’s unsurprising that we didn’t all agree on all the topics discussed. Still, it’s interesting and, I think, revealing to reflect on these disagreements. I like to think of them more as tensions than outright disagreements, because they’re often grounded in similar goals and concerns, just different approaches. In this post, I want to highlight four tensions that I especially noted.

#1. Is social media more like drinking alcohol or driving a car?

The first tension relates to the kinds of metaphors we use to understand young people’s digital media use, including their use of social media and video games. Emily Weinstein, Co-Director of the Center for Digital Thriving at Harvard Graduate School of Education (and, full disclosure, a dear colleague and friend dating back to my Harvard days) observed that the metaphors we use matter. They shape how we approach research on young people’s digital experiences, the interventions we develop, and the policies we pass.

Some favor a substance abuse metaphor, observing that social media and video games give teens a “quick fix” (similar to what alcohol and drugs provide) that is often followed by withdrawal symptoms and accompanied by underlying mental health issues. This metaphor would imply that we look to addiction fields when devising research and interventions.

Others, such as my UW colleague Lucia Magis-Weinberg, prefer a car and seatbelt metaphor. Like cars, social media can provide teens with independence, freedom, access to friends, and opportunities for new experiences. But cars also bring with them real dangers, which is why we have seatbelts, airbags, and other safety measures that are highly regulated by the government. This metaphor suggests that, rather than aiming to eliminate or even restrict kids’ use of digital media, we should instead focus our efforts on making their digital experiences as positive and safe as possible.

#2. Should kids be protected or empowered online?

Some attendees focused on protecting kids online, while others were more interested in empowering them. The keynote address given by Ari Waldman, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, fell into the second category. Waldman observed that, on balance, youth have little agency online, and what little they do have is shrinking in certain places, such as in Utah and Arkansas. He pointed to recent legislation in these states that place parents in control of their children’s access to social media, even requiring that parents have access to their children’s private messages and posts. Such legislation, Waldman, argued, has the effect of stripping teens of any sense of privacy or agency online. Waldman would like to see legislation that grants kids control over their identity and privacy online, for instance, by requiring companies to create default privacy settings and then trusting kids to navigate their own preferences. This view is representative of many researchers at the conference, whose work aims to support youth agency online.

Others pushed back (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) on this perspective, adopting a more protective stance when it comes to kids’ digital experiences. These professionals took more of a harms-first approach, placing greater weight on the dangers of digital technologies (e.g., cyberbullying, addiction, child abuse, and physical harms such as obesity) than the benefits (e.g., friendship, identity exploration, and fun). In his speech to conference attendees, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) called for a “duty of care” to protect kids online, and he said that this is precisely what the Kids’ Online Safety Act would compel tech companies to do if passed.1Senator Blumenthal was optimistic that the bill will pass soon, noting that it currently has 50 co-sponsors in the Senate.

#3. Should parents control or encourage kids’ media use?

The third tension extends the previous discussion about protection versus empowerment, but shines a light more squarely on parents. The Utah and Arkansas laws mentioned above are indicative of just how much responsibility is being placed on parents to “get it right” when it comes to gatekeeping and monitoring their children’s digital media use. Actually, this was one area where I think we pretty much all agreed: it’s a lot. The tension came when considering what should be done about it.

For some, the responsibility placed on parents is a lot, but it’s there and more or less appropriate. Where we need to focus our attention is figuring out how to help parents meet their responsibilities so that they can support their children’s digital wellbeing. Others wanted to bring parents’ wellbeing into the conversation, suggesting that perhaps we need to rethink the kinds of expectations that are being placed on parents. As my writing about the “good enough” digital parent would suggest, I appreciated those researchers, such as Jenny Radesky, Heather Kirkorian, and Sarah Coyne, who are studying just how difficult it can be to parent in a digital age. I also appreciated conversations that questioned why all the burden is placed on parents to manage tech-related challenges that they didn’t create and that they themselves struggle with (teen aren’t the only ones who struggle to manage the pull of phone notifications!).

#4. Should we change the child or the technology?

The question of who shoulders the burden for supporting children’s positive tech experiences brings us to the fourth tension I observed. Although the conference included an impressive mix of professional roles and scholarly disciplines, there were few researchers from the human-computer interaction (HCI) field, where I publish much of my research. HCI researchers, like researchers in the fields of psychology, education, and communication (which were well-represented at the conference), are interested in understanding the impacts of today’s digital technologies on children’s development and wellbeing. Where they differ from these other fields is what to do about those impacts.

Psychologists and education researchers tend to take the technology, whether it’s social media or video games, as a given, the current reality for today’s youth. As a result, they focus on developing interventions that give parents, teachers, and young people tools to make their digital experiences as positive as they can be.2One area where researchers in psychology, education, and other fields are working to change current technologies is policy. The American Psychological Association’s recent health advisory on social media use in adolescence is a good example. HCI researchers are more likely to ask how the technology itself could be changed to support youth’s digital wellbeing (see an example from my research lab).

This tension is perhaps the least “tense.” We need both approaches. We need to respond to existing technologies as they are now, and we need to work towards making them better. Viewing social media as a drug versus a mode of transportation, by contrast, or seeking to protect versus empower kids online are tensions that may be more difficult to resolve. But I’m glad we’re having these conversations, and I’m grateful that this year’s Congress provided a venue for them. Without confronting and exploring these tensions, efforts to support kids’ digital experiences will be fragmented at best, and in direct conflict, at worst.


  • 1
    Senator Blumenthal was optimistic that the bill will pass soon, noting that it currently has 50 co-sponsors in the Senate.
  • 2
    One area where researchers in psychology, education, and other fields are working to change current technologies is policy. The American Psychological Association’s recent health advisory on social media use in adolescence is a good example.