CNN’s '#Being13' Is a Worthy Look at the Digital Lives of Young Adolescents

By Mark Walsh — October 06, 2015 3 min read
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At the end of his CNN special about the online lives of young adolescents, host Anderson Cooper says, “I gotta say, I’m glad I’m not 13 now, and I’m glad I don’t have a 13-year-old.”

I was thinking the same thing throughout the hour-long special, "#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,” which was a fascinating exploration of the pitfalls, perils, and a few of the promises, of the online world for the age group in question, most of whom are in 8th grade. (The special aired Monday night but is available online via CNN’s on-demand platforms.)

While some other networks would have approached this topic differently—I’m envisioning ABC News’ “20/20" profiling a handful of teenagers and their parents—CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360" worked with two experts on adolescence to study the “hidden digital world” of 13-year-olds in a more systematic way.

Working with Marion K. Underwood, a professor of behavioral and brain sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, and Robert W. Faris, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Davis, CNN invited some 200 13-year-olds to participate in a research project. Significantly, the project studied what these young teens actually posted in social media, not just what they said their behavior was in a survey.

The result, Cooper warned at the outset, was a lot of content that was stark, violent, sexual, or vulgar. CNN ran much of it unfiltered, except for a few words that just had to be bleeped and obscured.

A handful of the students—including eight who participated in an in-studio discussion with Cooper—also filed videos of their thoughts about their online activities.

Here are some of the key takeways, which 13-year-olds and their parents probably know, but probably not as well as they think:

  • The 13-year-olds check their phones some 100 times a day on average for social media updates about their friends or for reactions to their posts. “Why check over 100 times a day?” Cooper asked. “They’re really worried about fitting in.” (Also, going online was discussed almost exclusively as going on one’s mobile phone, as opposed to computers or other devices.)

  • While cyberbullying from those far away is a problem, the biggest sources of online pain for these adolescents are those closest to them. The 13-year-olds are all geared for what the experts called “social combat.”

  • When adolescents “lurk” online—checking social media without posting— they likely see highly groomed, curated, filtered pictures that are strategically posted at a time of day when peers will be online so as to attract the maximum number of likes and comments.

Cooper is the one-time host of the classroom news show “Channel One” and is still considered CNN’s young, hip anchor, despite his prematurely white hair.

He connected well with the 13-year-olds, but when he brought eight of the teens into the studio, he played “gotcha” to a degree by displaying to some of them hurtful or inappropriate comments that they had posted to their online accounts. A boy named Zack seemed only slightly embarrassed that he had created a “To Be Rude” campaign against a girl that attracted scores of comments.

A separate panel of parents of those same students told Cooper that, “YES!,” they are all driven nuts by how often their 13-year-olds use their phones.

Underwood offered some advice to parents in the show: Talk to your children about their online lives. And no matter how much an adolescent does not want his or her parent as a Facebook friend, the parents should sign up for these services and try to keep tabs on their children, she said.

The show didn’t focus on schools or educators to any particular degree, other than to suggest that the 13-year-olds are connecting first with their school friends, but that their online universe of “friends” can expand quickly—and dangerously.

All in all, "#Being13" is a worthwhile show for parents and educators to find and watch online. And 13-year-olds might learn a thing or two from it, as well, if they can set their phones down for an hour.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.