The Kids Are Online—and Alright

The Kids Are Online—and Alright

Lack of broadband access is a greater threat to the well-being of young people than too much access. CITRIS Executive Director Camille Crittenden knocks down the conventional wisdom on kids and the internet.

Issues in Science and Technology: Ninety-five percent of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one; 45% of them say they are online on a near-constant basis. Some adolescents become entangled in inappropriate or exploitive relationships by exchanging personal information or ill-advised selfies. Others have been victims or perpetrators of online abuse and harassment, leading to real-world consequences for mental and physical health. College acceptances, job opportunities, or good credit ratings can all be forfeited because of impetuous decisions made by young brains in the grip of ubiquitous, addictive technologies.

Even when the consequences are less dire, most parents of adolescents have good reason to dread the hollow-eyed breakfast gaze of teens who spent the night playing online video games or texting with friends. Or the irascibility of children forcibly torn away from their screens to spend some undistracted time with family members.

But the news is not all bad. Teens benefit in sometimes unexpected ways from access to online information and real-time interactions. Researchers are discovering ways that social media and related activities can help teens feel more connected, find information on topics they may be too embarrassed to ask about in person, and join communities less exclusive than high school cliques and varsity teams. As much as teen behavior can be diminished by poor judgment—with accelerated and amplified consequences as a result of their online interactions—teens’ lives can also be truly enhanced, and offline harms reduced, with access to high-speed networks.

Whether it’s doing homework, communicating with friends, creating videos or music, or searching for a college or a job, the ubiquitous reality is that a typical day in teen life will include a lot of screen time. For parents, teachers, and others who care about and for fledgling youth, the challenge is to provide guardrails for appropriate quantity and quality of online interactions. How much is too much? Which activities are beneficial and which more harmful? Of course there is no easy prescription here, but in addition to the well-known downsides, it turns out that internet platforms and resources play an important role in teens’ social-emotional development, and online practices interact with offline behaviors in sometimes surprising and positive ways. Three areas where social science research suggests unexpected benefits include reproductive and mental health, professional development and economic security, and civic engagement. Some of these benefits are so significant that the greatest risk to children may come less from too much access to the internet than from not enough.