Weinstein, Emily and James, Carrie. Behind their screens: what teens are facing (and adults are missing). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022. 229 p. ISBN 978-0-262-04735-7. $27.95.
Anyone who at present has teenagers in the family or meets them regularly has noticed and complained about the fact that they are addicted to their phones and social media. Quite often we also hear that this addiction prevents them from living real lives, which always seemed to me slightly absurd. Something that is so pervasive is obviously an integrated part of real life, whether its impact on the social fabric is threatening or benign. Besides, if one pays any real attention to the teenagers living next to them, will agree that most of these youngsters are smart and intelligent and have quite a lot of experience to assess the dangers and pleasures of their life-style whatever it is. Maybe, their actions are not always as mature and risk-avoiding as the adults would like, but quite often they happen not for the lack of understanding the threats.
The book Behind their screens is written by two remarkable researchers from Harvard Graduate School of Education who have persistently investigated the teenagers behaviour in digital contexts as part of their lives. Moreover, they have involved them in their projects not only as passive participants, but as collaborators who help to highlight the dark spots of such a complex research object as digital life and motivation behind teenage behaviour. Thus, it provides a rare and much deeper understanding of these new conditions and teenage actors than any other book that I have read on the subject.
The authors emphasize the gap between what is observed on the surface by any adult outsider and the hidden dimension of what is really happening. The division is not between screens and 'real life', but between visible actions and invisible choices that underpin our whole life, whether we are teenagers or aging adults using technologies every day or entirely avoiding them. This distinction and the personal pedagogical excellence has provided the researchers with exceptional possibility to win the trust of their teenage research partners and made the voices of the latter not only heard, but also interpreted and understood in a fruitful way.
In seven chapters of the book, different worries and concerns related to the teenage digital behaviour are addressed. Digital technolgoies serve a wide variety of teenagers in different contexts and with diverse interests in life. They shape the experiences of their users, but are also used in different ways and shaped to fit into the life-spaces of teens, who do understand their own dependence on devices, disruption and distraction, involvement into social comparison, cyberbullying and sexting.
These young users find their ways to cope with the emerging problems that sometimes are quite different from those perceived by adults. Thus, a wide variety of social conflict and how they are playing out in the digital environment become a context, in which cyberbullying may occur as the most crude expression of such a conflict. Understanding of the dangers of sexting does not prevent sending nude imagers, but these threats are perceived well and dealt with by boys and girls in digital and non-digital ways appropriate for the situation. The young people use digital technology to express their political views with a number of serious negative and positive consequencies that they assess when engaging in a 'digital civic space'.
Some of the worries emplified by the digital environments are about the privacy and the permanence of digital materials that may have repercussions for people long after they have grown out of this troubled age. It is remarkable how the evidence presented in the book prooves that the participants think about and understand these dangers. They express their concern about their personal data being available to all and sundry, about blackmailing possibilities, becoming a victime of a stolen identity, or loss of money through theft. They also have a healthy dose of distrust to governments and big companies who don't give a fuck about your privacy and just try to sell you stuff... (p. 156).
The book is written on the basis of sound qualitative research. The authors provide quite a substantial information about the design of different projects, through which this data was collected, thus, ensuring the trustworthiness of their conclusions. On the other hand, this does not turn the book into a boring account of investigation. It is written with a purpose to address the adult audience that has a stake in helping their children to navigate and survive in the complexities of social life that are the result of our own activities and ignorance. Therefore, it is written in a way that involves readers and makes them care for the boys and girls who they meet on the pages.
The book is addressing a wide audience of parents, educators, social workers and policy makers and anyone who is or may be interested in the discussed issues. It is written clearly, avoiding research jargon. The stories from teens experience make it alive and fun, which also will attract the teenage readers who might benefit from it as much as the adults if not more.
I would like to believe that this book will impact many of our discussions about the effects of digital media in general and about the conditions of life of teenagers bringing richness and needed thoughtfullness to them.
University of Borås
How to cite this review
Maceviciute, E. (2022). Review of: Weinstein, Emily and James, Carrie. Behind their screens: what teens are facing (and adults are missing). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2022. Information Research, 27(4), review no. R750 [Retrieved from http://www.informationr.net/ir/reviews/revs750.html]
Information Research is published four times a year by the University of Borås, Allégatan 1, 501 90 Borås, Sweden.