How many times have you heard your colleagues complain about the technical habits of younger team members? How many times have you heard teachers or parents talk about “today’s kids can’t pay attention” because their attention is as long as a TikTok video? It’s easy to look at the social media and texting practices of adolescents and shake your head at the drama without really understanding the intensity of growing up in such a hyper-connected world, which magnifies all the pressures of adolescence. As adults, we can struggle to fully understand their intentions and experiences.
New research in a fascinating new book, Behind their scenes, by Emily Weinstein and Carrie James, two researchers at Harvard, offers a close-up look at how teens actually text, message, and respond to each other’s messages. Their research team surveyed more than 3,000 American teens and worked with a 22-member teen advisory board to help them interpret their research. The book makes a compelling case for working with young people to understand young people. Their research uncovers a number of phenomena that show how well teens are — how precisely tuned in — to each other’s reactions and their own behavior.
With many beautifully revealing quotes from teens, James and Weinstein detail 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 reacting too quickly – they don’t want to seem too eager, or worse, “desperate.” So young people are balancing and titrating their investment to get a response and show some interest. They want to ‘seem available, but not too available’. (Anyone who has hesitated to send an email, or rephrased a text, or waited uncomfortably for a response will find plenty of empathy.)
Weinstein and James report that some teens even schedule delays after receiving a text to arrange a response time. Read up on Behind their scenes talking about the emotional labor they describe on both dealing with response time and obsession with other people’s response times, especially with an important new friendship or romance, will give you empathy for teens.
The authors also describe the innovative teen hack of a “half swipe” on Snapchat — where you can swipe halfway to preview a message, but the sender won’t know you’ve seen it — to give the recipient extra time. to compose a response before the sender knows the recipient has seen it. It takes a lot of effort, but it also shows that the importance of communication (and status) in teenage relationships has not changed in some ways. The pressure baked into some features and app capabilities can put additional pressure on teens. For example, think of Snapchat Streaks, which tracks how many consecutive days two users have exchanged messages on the app. An hourglass will appear when you are about to lose your streak. This can be stressful because it’s such a visible sign of relationship continuity and reciprocity — and no one wants to be the one to drop the ball.
If you want a more narrative introduction to teen texting practices, or want to share the experience with your local teen, try watching Netflix’s heart stopper, a charming queer romance between two boys at a British high school. As the unlikely friendship between school geek Charlie and supposed straight rugby player Nick blossoms, we initially see the boys DMing on Instagram, while not having each other’s numbers. The guys put in a lot of effort to write just the right short messages. We see them both typing, erasing and typing new messages and then suffering pain while waiting, the three dots. As Charlie composes and recomposes, with a long pause, we see Nick swiping up “just to check” as he waits endlessly for a response. Later, when the relationships are more settled, we see their lyrics flying back and forth with much less hesitation. And a delightful scene in which they plan a double date with two other “local gays” shows the dynamics of group texting with great accuracy. Reading Behind their scenes show how good the heart stopper producers got it. (The show is an adaptation of the heart stopper graphic novelswhose author, 28-year-old Alice Oseman, certainly understands.)
As teens grow up into college and into the workforce, it’s 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.