Digital Stress on Teens

Study could lead to better support of adolescents growing up in the digital world.

A new study published this week by Emily Weinstein, Ed.M. ’14, and Larsen professor of education Robert Selman pinpoints specific digital stressors related to adolescents’ experiences online. The Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) researchers analyzed 2,000 stories about “digital dilemmas” posted anonymously by teens to the MTV website Over the Line, and found that the digital stresses that teens typically encountered—mainly texts, e-mails, and social media—fell into one of six categories, including cyber-bullying or being impersonated. The study, titled “Digital Stress: Adolescents’ Personal Accounts,” was published online last month in the journal New Media & Society.

Researchers sorted the stresses into two groups: Type 1 stressors include experiences such as receiving a barrage of personal attacks, being impersonated, or being outed, shamed, or humiliated publicly. Type 2 stressors involve a controlling boyfriend, girlfriend, or friend constantly breaking into one’s social-media accounts to read digital communications with others; feeling smothered by the quantity of digital communications from friends; and feeling pressure to reveal private information.

One example of a Type 2 stressor for adolescents, the researchers pointed out, is sexting. “Our analysis revealed that sexting nude photographs, for example, often begins as a way to signal trust and commitment,” Weinstein said in a press release. “However, the analysis of the anonymous teens’ personal accounts reveals how surprised teens are when these expressions of connection so easily become public.”

“Since we began this new work a year ago,” Weinstein said in the release, “we have been amazed at the desire on the part of parents as well as professionals to not only have this information, but to understand its implications.” Their study, the researchers say, can be used by teens as well, and could lead to better interventions and support for adolescents growing up in an increasingly digital world.


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