27 April 2023 • Alums The Social Forces Behind Social Media

During the President’s Forum Series, social scientist Carrie James ’92 shared insights from her research exploring young people’s digital, moral and civic lives.

For more than a decade, Research Associate and Principal Investigator at Harvard’s Project Zero Carrie James ’92 has been asking incisive questions about how and why teens use social media and the impacts of 24/7 connectivity. At a President’s Forum event last week, James detailed some of the central findings of her recent book, Behind Their Screens: What Teens are Facing (and Adults are Missing), and engaged with the audience about her ongoing efforts to improve our relationships with technology.

“We all have our assumptions about social media, but the goal in writing Behind Their Screens was to help adults specifically shift their perspective,” James said, because “there’s more than meets the eye at first glance.”

To get a “teen-level view” of what it’s like to grow up in a world of 24/7 connectivity, James said that she and her colleague and coauthor Emily Weinstein “realized that as much as we had expertise, we needed to partner with teens to understand what we were seeing and really get the full picture.” They conducted surveys and recruited a teen advisory council of 22 teens from different communities, contexts and identities across the U.S. to determine what “adults are missing that [young people] most want them to understand.”

Carrie James '92 during the President's Forum Series.

Carrie James '92 discuesses the social pull of technology during the President's Forum Series.

During her talk, James highlighted some of the key findings of the research, including the social pull of technology, which can nurture friendships and connect peers, as well as the pressures and challenges of being constantly connected. “Where, when and how young people post is really under the microscope,” she said.

James teased out the nuances of tech-mediated social conflict, noting that it’s a spectrum of behavior that can range from outright bullying to “much more ambiguous acts” of hostility and exclusion. As she said, “So much of what’s stressful [for teens] flies below the radar and can look benign to the outsider.”

She noted the promises of technology offers for “participatory politics” — the interactive, peer-based civic engagement facilitated by social media — which allows “young people to have a voice, to engage in dialogue about civic issues and to mobilize large audiences on behalf of a cause.” The flipside of this engagement, she noted, comes with worries “about getting sucked into toxic discourse” and leaving a “politicized digital footprint,” threatening future career opportunities.

James — who was introduced by her mentor, Professor Emeritus of Sociology Jim Spates P’00, P’09 — also reflected on her trajectory from HWS into her career. After a few minutes in Spates’ introductory sociology course, James “was hooked.” She declared her major that year and “never looked back.”

She said her education at HWS helped her learn “to see the world with news eyes and recognized the hidden social forces that are everywhere. That sociological imagination never turned off…. [It helped me understand] that looking deeply and critically at the world is a crucial first step if we’re going to do anything to change it.”

A sociologist by training, James has led research and educational initiatives focused on ethical issues in digital life, civic engagement and participatory politics in a connected age, and cross-cultural online learning experiences. In addition to Behind Their Screens, she is the author of Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap and numerous articles in peer-reviewed education and media journals. She holds a B.A. in sociology from William Smith and an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from New York University. She is the parent of two technology-loving kids, ages 12 and 16. Follow her on Twitter at @carrie_james.

Learn more about Carrie James.

Established in 2000 by President Mark D. Gearan, the President's Forum Series brings a variety of speakers to campus to share their knowledge and ideas with students, faculty and staff, as well as with interested community members.