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.
THERE ARE AT least three critical paths to helping teens, and these build on the different types of agency outlined by psychologist Albert Bandura.
First, teach teens to build personal agency. Personal agency refers to the things an individual can do to exert influence over situations. Teens in our research described curating their social media feeds toward well-being by unfollowing or muting accounts that make them feel bad. They also work toward personal agency by setting their own screen time limits or intentionally putting their phones out of reach when they want to focus on studying. Others strategically segment their online audiences to empower more intentional sharing to particular groups.
Building teens’ personal agency means supporting skills and strategies they can deploy when digital stressors come up. This can mean moving beyond rules that simply impose arbitrary screen time limits. Of course, teens often need support developing healthy screen time habits and curbing unregulated binges. An important aim is helping teens recognize moments when tech use adds to or undercuts their well-being or personal goals. This requires focusing more on what a teen is doing during their screen time and to what end. By modeling intentional digital habits (e.g., “I need to turn off my notifications for a bit, I’m feeling so distracted by my phone today”), we can help teens do the same for themselves. In this spirit, Tom Harrison writes about the value of parents being “thick exemplars” who share with children times when we struggle with our own digital experiences, misstep, or puzzle over how to “do the right thing.”
Building personal agency can also mean anticipating and discussing different dilemmas before they arise. By doing so, we can help lessen anxiety and create ways to scaffold communication skills or strategic plans that position teens to feel more agentive when the moment calls for it. One of our favorite quotes from an educator we interviewed captures the spirit of what we’re looking to support: teens’ decision-making “at ten o’clock on a Saturday night.” This can mean having go-to language to respond to a snap from a romantic interest asking for a nude or to kindly (but firmly) set a boundary with a friend whose texting has become overwhelming.
Collective agency is when people “provide mutual support and work together to secure what they cannot accomplish on their own.” A signature example: the ways teens form pacts to vet photos of each other before tagging and posting. Even amid dismay about a world in which privacy feels forsaken, some teens find ways to protect and respect each other’s privacy and online public image. Collective agency is also at play when teen girls share intel about guys known to leak girls’ nudes so that they can be on alert and avoid them. Yet another example came up in the descriptions of teens who create online study spaces over Discord or Zoom to help each other maintain focus while keeping other digital distractions in check. Because friends are often poised to make digital life more or less stressful, when teens work together to reshape burdensome norms, everyone stands to win.
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