What Will We Focus On Now? Screens, Teens, and Attention

“My kid has been tethered to their device for over a year….I cannot wait for summer to just unplug and reboot,” a parent recently shared.

“I am with you!” I responded. “Seems like we could all use some time recovering from Zoom/GoogleMeet/Teams fatigue.”

It’s not that pre-COVID teens (or adults) had a lot of digital balance. Indeed, as design ethicist Tristan Harris has long shared, “proximity is destiny” when it comes to our devices. If our devices are close by, we have always been likely to pick them up and start scrolling. Driven by our thirst for connection and information, algorithm induced reward loops, and habit, we are often deep into our devices before making a decision to be there.

But during COVID our devices have been much closer by and our lives went “digital by default” with fewer activity choices overall. So it makes sense that as we transition into this next phase of COVID, we yearn to resurrect some balance and put devices out of arm’s reach again. This “off and away” approach might work for many of us as we recover from a year of digital immersion. Prioritizing device-free time for connection, sleep, exercise, and play is certainly a great way to protect the spaces that matter most to our mental health during this transition.

But as our teens start to have choices again about how they are going to spend their time, we would be wise to couple strict “off and away” strategies with ongoing conversations about the forces that shape those decisions and what a better online world might look like when we log back on.

Teenager with headphones on looking at cell phone

Activating critical consumers in a commercial digital ecosystem

We have decades of research demonstrating that critical media literacy, or the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms, protects young people from some of the worst effects of harmful media content when it comes to body image, media violence, and stereotypes.

But understanding the systems that drive the content and design matters too. In other words, our kids should learn that media isn’t just constructed to connect and persuade – it is also constructed to attract our attention and to sell. It is inherently a commercial digital ecosystem. This is especially important given that our kids’ time, attention, and data are at the heart of what makes the tech industry hum. 

An old MTV memo once promised its advertisers “Anyone can deliver eyeballs. How many can deliver hearts and minds?” The statement was building on the basic business model of media – delivering eyeballs to advertisers. Today’s attention economy is an accelerated, amplified, and data-driven variation of this same model. 

If our kids lack understanding of how their favorite apps and games are designed and how they make money, they are more vulnerable to their influence. This doesn’t mean that we should launch into a long lecture about the business model of Silicon Valley. It does mean that instead of just saying, “Put that thing down!” we might try, “Do you know why it is so hard for us to put devices down and who benefits most when we don’t? Let’s find out.” 

Here are five questions we should all investigate with our kids about their participation in the attention economy:

  1. What is your favorite App? Who and what is it for? 
  2. How does this App generate revenue? Who owns it? 
  3. How does the business model rely on you? Your attention? Your participation? How is it designed to keep both your time and attention engaged?
  4. When is this app aligned with your purpose? When does it seem to get in the way of your purpose?
  5. If you were to redesign this platform and it’s business model, how would it be different? 

Need a video to get the conversation going? Check out this overview from PBS Digital Studios.

Activating critical change makers

This last question prompting young people to reimagine the design of digital platforms shouldn’t just be a thought exercise. Too often, apps and tools are marketed to youth instead of designed with and for youth. There is tremendous opportunity to engage young people as experts, innovators, and leaders instead of just as consumers within digital spaces. These conversations can help activate this much-needed mindset. 

Indeed, helping our kids understand the attention economy and become more mindful media users is only part of the solution. Relying on individual willpower alone ignores the time, talent and resources that tech companies spend on attracting kids’ time and attention. It also misses the opportunity to center young people’s voices and ideas in conversations about the policies, laws, and investments that shape their digital lives.  

While popular dystopian documentaries like The Social Dilemma have brought the attention economy and persuasive design into popular conversation in powerful ways, the film oversimplifies the research (especially on mental health and addiction or over-use) and is relatively thin on solutions. Relying mostly on the narratives of white men who have left social media giants – we would be wise to also look to other voices who have long explored digital wellbeing, children’s digital rights, and what it would mean to create a healthy digital ecosystem for children and youth.

After more than year of screen immersion let’s not just “return to normal” without thinking critically about the digital landscape we are participating in.  Let’s engage our teens in conversations that impact them and help them identify ways to engage and take action. Need some ideas? Try these conversation starters and campaigns:

What will we focus on now?

Learning about the attention economy can make us parents want to delete social apps as quickly as possible. As we emerge from COVID the impulse to just log off and unplug is especially strong. Not only can we rarely sustain these dramatic interventions but it can also can rob teens of a support structure they desperately need. Plus research shows that as our teens get older we need to balance these “control based” strategies with “connection based strategies” like conversation, mentorship, and problem solving. These strategies acknowledge the true benefits of these digital spaces while equipping our kids to navigate the risks they encounter there. 

In other words, we can celebrate their digital strengths AND set meaningful boundaries AND be critical of the commercial forces that shape their digital lives AND engage kids as active participants in and disrupters of these same systems. We don’t have to choose.

So let’s celebrate new opportunities to unplug and run towards each other as we enter this new phase of the pandemic. Let’s also not be surprised when our kids do this with their devices clutched in their hands. As we consider what they need next – let’s engage our kids in the questions that we know are actually incredible gifts: How do we want to spend our time? What demands and deserves our attention? Who benefits?