Photograph of a group of young friends using their phones and digital immersion

Today’s adolescents are growing up in an increasingly connected world. And while the daily grind of young adult life—like the pressure to get into the right high school or college—isn’t created by technology, its gears can be sped up by digital immersion and spending time absorbed in apps and surfing social media.

For over a decade, Mind & Life PEACE grantees Carrie James and Emily Weinstein have been fascinated with young people’s perspectives on what it looks and feels like to grow up in today’s digital world. How can mindfulness-based approaches to technology use help support positive well-being and prosocial behavior in today’s youth? With their 2021 PEACE grant project, James and Weinstein partnered with social psychologist Sara Konrath to answer this question and leverage contemplative science to mitigate the risks of disconnection and isolation through technology.

At Project Zero, housed at the Harvard School of Education, James and Weinstein work together to answer questions about what it’s like to grow up with smartphones and social media. “We’ve been really interested in the concept of digital agency,” says James, a sociologist and Principal Investigator. She advocates that being mindful of digital decisions—no matter what your age—can help create more intentionality about how technology fits into our lives. Their Mind & Life-supported project explored mindful technology use as an antidote to digital overwhelm in two phases. 

In the first phase, the team developed a Mindful Technology Use (MTU) scale to help measure and design educational and clinical interventions for youth well-being. Before any formal data collection, the group gathered young people’s perspectives and feedback through interviews to capture how they felt and spoke about their own technology use. “We worked alongside youth to make sure that our scale would not only cover the most relevant topics, but also use language aligned with what would make sense to young people,” says Weinstein.  

After establishing the key topics and language, James, Weinstein, and Konrath collected data from nearly 800 youth, aged 13-17, to validate, develop, and test the scale. The resulting self-reported MTU scale features four components that can help individuals assess their own mindful technology use: mindless uses (“I get distracted by my phone and it takes me out of the moment”), unhealthy uses (“I use my device, even when I know it will make me feel worse”), empathetic uses (“I consider how people are presented in my posts and how they feel about it”), and civic-oriented uses (“I use my platform to speak out about causes I care about”). 

Says Weinstein, “This scale is way more granular than just looking at self-reported screen time,” which has been a dominant longstanding measure of technology use for youth, but one that is increasingly seen by scientists as insufficient. She adds that the scale supports growing scientific literature around approaching and assessing adolescent digital immersion in ways that aren’t solely negative. “We intentionally look at potentially unhelpful and problematic practices,” she adds, “but also the kind of practices that might be positive and beneficial.”

The scale is still based on adolescents’ self assessments, the researchers explain, and can be paired with other objective indicators, like smartphone captures of apps used and time spent on them. This could lead to more nuanced conversations, for example, some apps may promote more mindful engagement, while others may not. But the MTU can also be used as a standalone measure to capture key facets of adolescents’ views about their tech habits.

The team found that MTU predicted several positive outcomes—like good mental health and prosocial behavior—for both individuals and relationships. Scientists, educators, and mental health professionals can pick and choose what they need from the scale and how to use it. For example, an overall mindful technology use score can be calculated by subtracting negative component scores from positive component scores. Alternatively, users can focus on just one of the four components. “When used in the real world, we don’t want these tools to be completely one-size-fits-all,” underscores Konrath. “We wanted to be able to give people choices about what tools they use in the setting they’re in.”

In the second phase, the team piloted a classroom intervention aimed at cultivating awareness of MTU at a school in the Northeastern United States. Previously, James and Weinstein had developed and delivered interventions at this school to help foster digital-citizenship. The pilot group comprised youth from historically marginalized backgrounds, who are often underrepresented in this kind of research. 

In one activity, students were invited to mindfully consider and rank their individual values like authenticity, justice, privacy, and kindness, among others. They were asked to deeply reflect on questions like: What values are important to me right now? and Which values are less important to me? In a similar exercise, students participated in a voting activity where they placed green or red dot stickers, representing “positive” or “negative” impacts of technology, on values written on posters around the classroom. 

Beyond the design of student-facing activities to support mindful technology use, the team also regularly facilitates professional development sessions with teachers. Weinstein points to the power of teacher participation to encourage and support student engagement. “It’s important that students see mindful technology use as an ‘us and them’ battle, not an ‘us versus them’ battle,” she underscores. “We are all navigating this battle against persuasive design,” says Weinstein, “and what we saw in classrooms where teachers participated alongside students was the power of teachers’ sharing their own reflections and connections. This can open up a different level of connection and conversation on technology use between the students and teachers.”

“What we saw in classrooms where teachers participated
alongside students was the power of teachers’ sharing their own
reflections and connections. This can open up a different level of connection
and conversation on technology use between the students and teachers.”

Several resources were made available following this study. Insights gleaned and approaches developed from this work are being shared at conferences around the country, including the 2023 Children and Screens Conference hosted by the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. A Digital Thriving app was also recently released to help users connect with their values and consider connections between their values and their digital lives. Online professional development programs for teachers are in the works, and the MTU measure and other findings have inspired new directions for research focused on how social media intersects with an array of pressures youth experience in their daily lives. 

“It wasn’t just one seed planted,
but a whole garden of work that came from this grant.”

“It wasn’t just one seed planted,” says Konrath, “but a whole garden of work that came from this grant.” One fruitful seed, all three grantees agree, was the opportunity to work together on this project. Weinstein highlights the ability for this grant to catalyze their collaboration, which has many years ahead of it, as a huge contribution. “There’s a relational piece, having some structure for our collaboration was a really important part of receiving this funding,” she says.

Mind & Life Connections