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How can digital technology help middle schoolers thrive? This is not the question we are usually asked about screen time for youth, but it should be.

As developmental scientists, we know that early adolescence — ages 10 to 13, roughly, or the middle school years — is a pivotal period for promoting positive development. The rapid physical, cognitive and social changes that happen during these years create an intense period of exploring a wider world and navigating more complex social situations.

Many middle schoolers are spending as much (if not more) time online as they do in classrooms, often in spaces not designed for them. More than a third of youth under 13 are using social media, most often through apps created for those over 13. Their heightened sensitivity to social experiences during this time can amplify the effects of these virtual experiences — in both positive and negative ways, our review of the research found.

Our kids are growing up in a digital world. We know enough about beneficial and safe online experiences to design platforms in ways that help middle schoolers thrive.

Too often, our fears about online safety and screen time overshadow the positive potential these online spaces hold for our kids. This is a missed opportunity. Young adolescents are not getting lost on their devices; they are going online to learn, explore and socializein ways that can promote healthy development.

It is time we expect more from the online spaces where youth spend so much of their time.

If properly supported, the digital world can give middle schoolers a chance to discover a broader world and explore new interests. They may find social connection online and ways to contribute to the lives of those around them that might not be available in their physical environments.

The digital world can provide safe spaces to hang out with friends and form new relationships with peers. It can offer opportunities for parents and educators to influence learning and support positive outcomes during this pivotal time, when youth are exploring who they are and what is important to them.

Educators and caregivers may wonder why, as researchers, we are promoting a positive view of digital technologies for young adolescents, when an array of headlines suggest that smartphones and social media are responsible for problems ranging from rising rates of childhood obesity to a youth mental health epidemic.

After years of researching the effects of digital technology, we have found that most of the evidence to date does not support the view that social media and smartphones are the cause of these problems. In fact, with the right approach, these devices have the potential to support positive and healthy development.

Related: OPINION: Children today are facing a mental health crisis. Smartphones are making it worse

That’s why we need to start thinking differently about young people and their devices. Using what we know from the research on youth and digital technology, it is time to start asking how we can design and build online spaces to help middle schoolers learn and thrive.

Here’s what could help:

First, we should design online spaces to provide age-appropriate opportunities to explore, connect and contribute. Though challenging, it is now possible to integrate age-verification into platforms and monitor and support the delivery of age-appropriate content.

Educators, youth and experts in promoting positive development should be consulted in the design and delivery of any digital technology that will be used by significant numbers of young adolescents.

Second, we must use regulations to make digital spaces safe for this age group. Data collection about young adolescents should require explicit consent. Targeted advertising should be limited.

Features known to pose a risk to the well-being of young people should be banned and regulations should enforce accurate age-verification methods.

Third, digital technology used by young adolescents should incorporate the best available evidence on how to support and protect the well-being of middle-school-aged youth. Digital technology companies should partner with researchers to perform ongoing safety monitoring and identify new potential areas of harm. Features that protect privacy and well-being — such as sleep silencing and settings to keep accounts private — should be built into online platforms as default settings.

Related: How one city closed the digital divide for nearly all its students

Finally, we need to ensure that all young adolescents are able to access the benefits of digital technology. As we saw during the pandemic, lack of access to online educational spaces, enrichment programs and more curated social environments put kids from lower-income and rural families at a social and academic disadvantage.

All young people should have reliable access to the level of digital connectivity required to fully participate in their education and learning, and should have the support and knowledge they need to interact safely with the online world. Schools and other youth-serving programs that work with digital technology should receive the funding necessary to provide all their students access to quality, age-appropriate digital platforms and devices along with instruction on how to use them safely.

We know how to create engaging, safe spaces for youth to learn and thrive. We already rely on evidence-based standards and best practices to ensure that classrooms support learning and well-being; these practices need to be applied in online spaces.

It is time we expect more from the online spaces where youth spend so much of their time. We need to insist that tech companies employ standards and policies to support our young people and keep them safe, and that policymakers enforce them.

Candice Odgers is a professor at UC Irvine and co-director of the Connecting the EdTech Research EcoSystem (CERES) network. Jacqueline Nesi is an assistant professor at Brown University and co-leader of the Brown-Lifespan Center for Digital Health. Both are members of the National Scientific Council on Adolescence and co-authors with other NSCA colleagues of a new report on youth and digital technology.

This story about children and digital technology was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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