In The Unseen Teen: The Challenges of Building Healthy Tech for Young People, Amanda Lenhart and Kellie Owens interview tech industry professionals to understand how adolescent well-being is prioritized (or not) in the design and development of popular social media and gaming platforms. While existing research tends to focus on adolescents themselves, “this project shifts the inquiry to the site of production.”
Lenhart and Owens find numerous challenges to designing for adolescent digital well-being: “Digital well-being” does not have a commonly agreed-upon definition, which contributes to a focus on quantifiable modes of measuring digital well-being, like screen time and misses a more holistic view of what benefits younger users. Companies deploy “strategic ignorance” by purposely not collecting data on young people, and their business models deprioritize user well-being, and organizational structures make it difficult to advocate for interventions across disparate teams. Overall, they find in over 20 interviews that young users are treated as an afterthought and not considered in the typical definition of an “average user.” Platform companies must be held accountable for designing products that promote digital well-being for their young users, assert the authors.
“Designing for adolescents doesn’t just address some unique vulnerabilities they possess because of their developmental life stage and disempowered legal status, but can serve as a vanguard for better tech for everyone,” write Lenhart and Owens, including other vulnerable users and minoritized groups. The report provides recommendations for gaming and social media platform companies and their workers, as well as for regulators and civil society groups, who wish to improve digital well-being for adolescent users.