Deep Dives

Reimagining the role of social technologies in teens’ lives

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A man speaks at a Headstream event.
Photo courtesy of Headstream

I n the movie “Eighth Grade,” Kayla Day spends her days tethered to her phone— a portal to a world where she is still trying to find her way. We watch with anticipation as she navigates and fumbles through those all too familiar complexities of growing up, this time with a device that makes each experience more acute, more visceral, more permanent. Kayla’s story embodies a challenge many teens in the United States are grappling with—building your identity in a new, high-stakes, tech-enabled world.

Thumbnail for the trailer for "Eighth Grade"
When Ose Arheghan was a middle schooler in Ohio, they already knew that they didn’t quite fit in. It wasn’t until they turned to online message boards that they really started to feel connected to people who understood them.

“There is a safety in online community because you’re able to seek out as much or as little as you’re comfortable with. You’re able to build those connections when you’re ready and on your own terms, in a way that’s sometimes taken away from you in real life,” Ose shared in their speech to kick off Springboard, an ideation lab focused on teens and tech. The lab was hosted by Headstream, a project I direct, in collaboration with Artists for Humanity (AFH). Headstream’s mission is to build, source, and accelerate innovations that inspire a community to reimagine the positive role social technologies can have for the wellbeing of young people, like Ose, across the country.

Headstream, a project created by SecondMuse and supported by Pivotal Ventures, has spent the past year engaging with teens, technologists, and other experts to deeply understand what it is like to grow up in 2019. At the heart of each conversation, we listened closely to the answer to a guiding question: How can we ensure that social technologies support teenagers in their social development and wellbeing? We heard hundreds of inspiring approaches, and these four common themes have become the foundation of the Headstream Accelerator program:
A group of teenage women sit around tables asking questions during a headstream event
Photo courtesy of Headstream
Teenagers need to be involved
Teens are savvy and know what they want. If we want to build products that resonate, teens need to be engaged as creators, teachers, and decision-makers from the start. Teens are already tweaking their online experiences in big and small ways— such as digital detoxes and finstas.

Amanda Southworth, a 17-year-old iOS developer and the founder of Astra Labs, illustrates exactly how ubiquitous tech is in her life.

“I was born into a generation that grew up with these existing products in place, so for Millennials, Baby Boomers and Gen Y, the introduction of these technologies was so radical that it completely shifted the way that they thought. But for me, it’s just as simple as breathing. I wake up, I communicate, I have different feeds, I know exactly how I want to do things and how to do them.”
A group of innovators sit on stage speaking at a Headstream panel
Photo courtesy of Headstream
Social technologies have enormous potential
Technology is an immutable aspect of young people’s lives— our solutions need to cater to this reality, not fight it. The Headstream Accelerator will support innovations that are building positive, healthy, and engaging digital experiences and places to meet the needs of young people as they grow up.

Scottye Cash, a Professor of Social Work at Ohio State, shared her experiences working directly with teens and how technology has changed tremendously since she was a teenager.

“When I was coming out, I used AOL chat rooms to navigate that space. Through that community, I was able to get a lot of support. Young people today are using technology to find the language to describe what they are experiencing. I used to stay up all night looking for that information—now it is so accessible.”
A woman speaks into a microphone at a innovation event hosted by Headstream
Photo courtesy of headstream
Innovations must address inequalities and reach underserved communities
Even as tech works to tackle diversity within the industry, the solutions for digital wellbeing aren’t always accessible and don’t often resonate with the communities of young people most in need. Teens of color, LGBTQ+ teens, and teen girls need products and spaces that speak to the unique challenges they face growing up online and IRL.

Ose Arheghan, who you met earlier in this article, is a nationally recognized LGBTQ+ advocate. During their time designing with us at Springboard, they continued to stress the importance of online communities for marginalized groups.

“Having access to technology has been really empowering because I’ve been able to educate myself on my identity and what that means for me, and I’m not confined to what other people think being a part of the LGBT community means.”
A man speaks at a Headstream event.
Photo courtesy of Headstream
Teenagers don’t exist in a vacuum
Parents, caring adults, mentors, and friends are trying to navigate this ever-changing digital landscape just like teens. As teens spend more time in digital places, it's critical to find ways for adults to connect with and support the young people in their lives in those places, and to create more tools that can connect teens to caring mentors IRL. Building inter-generational connections and community online is just as important as connecting young people to their friends.

Jason Talbott, a co-founder of AFH, embodies the impact that a caring, trusted adult can have on the life of a young person. As a teen, Talbott developed a friendship with his AFH co-founder Susan Robinson after meeting her through her arts programs in Boston Public Schools. The mentorship role that Susan took on gave Jason the courage and opportunity to escape from the neighborhood he came up in, and eventually to provide that same care and mentorship to teens through his work at AFH.

“I never knew I was carrying these traumas within me. When I met Susan and started working together, making art together, all these experiences that had been swirling within me finally made sense.”

Springboard was the beginning. The two days we spent in the ideation lab highlighted the challenges and rewards that come with building directly with teens, changing the drivers of social technologies and focusing on underserved populations. Now the Headstream Accelerator, which is accepting applications through January 10, 2020, will continue to grow a community around a cohort of innovators who are committed to building digital wellbeing solutions into young people’s existing ecosystems, not around them.

Posted: December 18, 2019
Edition: Gather

The ideas and views reflected in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Evoke or Melinda Gates.