October 18, 2021

HX: Centering Youth, Equity, and Human Experience in a Digitally Networked World

Categories: Equity, Featured, Research
HX Banner

We are researchers of youth digital media practices who have worked together for over a decade to support youth in fostering positive forms of technology engagement. More recently, we have reconnected around these shared concerns at a pivotal moment of soul searching catalyzed by a global pandemic and a critical racial reckoning. We share a commitment to recognizing and amplifying the diversity, power, innovation, and progressive vision that young people bring to technology. For many years, our organizations—Connected Learning Lab, Data & Society, and Project Zero—have been leading related research and development.

While we recognize the risks and fears about young people’s use of technology, we feel the overwhelming focus on the negatives in the public conversation impedes progress towards solutions. We have also been troubled by how young people’s agency and voice, particularly those from minoritized communities, have been marginalized in an increasingly commercialized, politically polarized, and too often toxic online arena. Like many others, we have been struggling to move beyond a narrow focus on screen time and individual relationships to devices. We feel it is important to reorient the focus to supporting youth culture and communities, being advocates and effective allies, seeking coalitions to support healthy relationships to technology, and helping to steward a more equitable online world in partnership with youth.

We have been part of a working group puzzling over how to name and describe allied efforts to recalibrate our relationships with technologies and support positive, inclusive online spaces by and for young people. We’ve found fellow travelers in projects related to digital wellbeing, digital citizenship, and responsible tech, but have struggled to find a common term and shared language. After nearly a year of grappling, we are ready to share some initial thinking—a name and identity for this emerging field—HX, short for Human Experience, an approach to talking about, engaging with, and designing technology in a way that is aligned with our needs as humans.

Here we offer some additional context and work in progress, on what elements might tie together and sustain HX as a field of professional research and practice. This post summarizes our understanding of the work that has been collaboratively produced through the HX working group, as well as input from Mimi and Katie’s colleagues in the Youth Connections for Wellbeing project of the Connected Learning Lab, Candice Odgers and Stephen Schueller. We hope it can serve as a north star of sorts for others working in aligned and complementary spaces. We take responsibility for any shortcomings or blind spots in this post, and want to acknowledge that the insights it represents are not exclusively our own.

Elements of an Emerging HX Field

Clearly a field doesn’t spring into being just because a small group proclaims its existence. A strong field needs a good name, but also a common purpose, shared identity, goals, vision, practices, and approaches. We are offering the term HX for a field that is yet to be fully defined, but is forming out of a set of allied, emerging practices, values, and frameworks. While the contours of HX as a field are still emerging, it is clear that many see common cause in centering youth agency, equity, and human experience in a world increasingly saturated and reliant on technology. The hope we bring to HX is that it might draw together a coalition of professional communities amplifying the agency of diverse youth and their creativity, voice, and expertise to foster healthy and empowered relationships to technology and build a better Internet for all of us.

As educators and researchers of youth culture and practice, we feel particularly strongly that positioning youth at the center of HX is essential. Everyone, regardless of age, needs positive HX. Because of their immersion and fluency with the technology of the day, however, youth are uniquely positioned to receive the benefits of HX, and are under-appreciated experts with whom we can partner to improve HX for all. Today’s youth are also the most educated and diverse cohort in the U.S. ever, and have been at the forefront of movements for racial, social, and environmental justice.

New problems require new alliances. We see at least five increasingly influential research areas and communities of practice feeding into HX as an interdisciplinary and cross-sector field:

  • Wellbeing researchers, educators, and practitioners: This includes researchers and practitioners focused on improving emotional and social health, including clinical and affective science, positive psychology, and mental health professionals such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and allied fields.
  • Human-centered design and development: Fields such as HCI, UX, Health Informatics, and Computer Science offer us powerful tools for creating human-centered technology in ways increasingly centered on complex social systems, culture, and community. While UX focuses on user experience, HX reminds us that users are humans. HX asks us to imagine how tech can better fit into our lives, and how tech can be better designed in ways that support agency and well-being.
  • Youth organizing: Young people have been central to the development of the social web and Internet and mobile culture, as well as in movements for social justice. A growing number of adults and community based, entrepreneurial, and educational orgs are partnering with youth to amplify their voice and impact.
  • Developmental and learning sciences: Research and practice that understands and supports the healthy development and learning of young people is essential to supporting HX in ways tailored to the changing needs of children and youth as they grow older.
  • Internet research and governance: This area offers us understanding of the emergent behavior, society, and policy of the evolving web, bringing together movements in responsible, anti-racist, and ethical tech, humanities, and social science.

Our hope is to spark discussion within and across these fields to build a shared commitment to recalibrating our relationships to technology. 

Cutting across these existing communities of practice is a common set of values and approaches that can lead the way to a shared vision.

  • Committed to diversity and equity: everyone benefits when we elevate the voice and perspectives of those who have been less visible and heard.
  • In partnership with youth: young people, particularly those from marginalized groups, have essential experience, expertise and fluency for advancing HX in progressive and just ways.
  • Solution focused: the problems are clear and urgent, compelling a focus on the solutions.
  • Systems-oriented: HX recognizes how technology is not just about an individual and their devices, but is embedded in complex, dynamic, and collective social and cultural systems and processes.
  • Integrative, cross-sector, and interdisciplinary: today’s technology is tied to new systems and problems, requiring new alliances to serve diverse stakeholders.

How We Got Here and What’s Next

Longtime fellow travelers in the world of digital youth research, we were pleasantly surprised to reconnect late last year through a working group co-convened by our funders, Kevin Connors (Susan Crown Exchange) and Kelsey Noonan (Pivotal Ventures), to think through shared frameworks, goals, and values that united our work. Participation in the working group also gave us the opportunity to forge new connections with a broader network of leaders and organizations, including David Ball (Headstream), Kristine Gloria (Aspen Institute), and David Ryan Polgar (All Tech is Human). Our charge: come together around shared language and an identity for an emerging field focused on improving our individual and collective relationships with technology. Understanding that this was a communications and language problem, our working group also included the expertise of an issue-focused communication firm.

As with many field-defining efforts, this year-long journey often pushed us beyond our comfort zone in healthy ways. Young people were brought into the process, and our communication consultants offered a creative perspective that kept the conversation moving forward through productive tension with our more academic and deliberative consensus-building dispositions. Our interlocutors in the philanthropy, responsible tech and entrepreneurial worlds shared important perspectives on what it means to have real world impact within policy, technology, and commercial sectors. Importantly, this working group represented only a sliver of the varied fields and perspectives that need to be at the table for the effort to be truly representative and inclusive. It problematically, but perhaps not surprisingly, reflects the backgrounds of those of us with resources and privilege in research, philanthropy, and tech.

We see the soft launch of the HX messaging and ideas for a field framework as just the beginning of exploring a potential field, and a first invitation to coalition building. We share this post with our friends in the Connected Learning Alliance in hopes that there will be points of resonance with this community. In order to take root, the field will need much more writing, dialog, and resources. We look forward to engaging with potential partners and allies, as well as critics. For our own part, we will offer a continued commitment to a positive and generative vision of youth and technology, guided by HX’s core values. The HX website includes more background, resources, and invitations to join the conversation.

Our Projects and Collaborators

Our participation in this working group grew out of projects we have helped lead over the past few years. 

Youth Connections for Wellbeing at the Connected Learning Lab at UC Irvine is a project that Mimi and Katie have been leading together with Candice Odgers and Stephen Schueller, and with support from Remy Cross. The project seeks to identify, support, test, and communicate new digital strategies for tapping young people’s insights, agency, and technology engagements to support well being. The project includes a broader network of collaborators at the CLL and beyond, including Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire at UCI, Tiera Tanksley at CU Boulder, and Jason Yip and Jin Ha Lee at University of Washington, as well as community partners ListoAmerica, VIP Scholars, Hi, Anxiety, NASEF, and the Seattle Public Library. For more on this project, see the report, Social Media and Youth Wellbeing, and our case study series Spaces of Refuge: Supporting Youth Wellbeing through Equitable and Relatable Online Connection.

Reimagining Digital Wellbeing For and With Youth is a research and development project based at Project Zero at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, led by Carrie James and Emily Weinstein. This project builds on in-depth research and centers participatory design work with teens to develop strategies that address their pain points related to growing up in a connected world. The strategies-focused project follows an extensive study of threats to youth digital well-being (detailed in our forthcoming book, Behind Their Screens: What Teens Are Facing (And Adults Are Missing) from The MIT Press). The Project Zero team also has a longtime commitment to digital citizenship education and creating resources for schools in partnership with educators and in close collaboration with Common Sense Education.

The Health and Data team at the Data and Society Research Institute, led by Amanda Lenhart, analyzes the unintended consequences of health data collection, equitable outcomes in data-centric approaches to health, and what constitutes healthy behavior in the context of technology use. Most recently, Kellie Owens and Amanda Lenhart released The Unseen Teen report, the culmination of a 2 year project that studied how social platform company employees  defined and enacted digital well-being for youth in the product design process, and a companion primer, Good Intentions, Bad Inventions: The Four Myths of Healthy Technology, which champions evidence-based narratives about youth and adult use of technology. More about youth practices to protect their own well-being and understand how platform algorithms work to shape their digital experience can be found in Joan Mukogosi and Iretiolu Akinrinade’s work on Strategic Knowledge.

Special thanks to Kelsey Noonan and Kevin Connors for supporting this field-naming and defining effort, and Kaitlin Funaro, Sam Gibson, Hayley Hoverter and Hillary Moglen at Rally for their creative vision and endless patience in facilitating this process.