Designing Digital Interfaces that Support Adolescents and Young Adults in Navigating Online Disagreement with Peers

Peer relationships are of enormous importance to adolescent development, and learning to navigate disagreement with others is essential to building these relationships. Relationship scientist John Gottman explains that “if you enter into any long-term relationship thinking that the hallmark of its success is a lack of conflict, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment and failure.” Instead, researchers have found that it is two people’s response to conflict (rather than their ability to avoid it) that predicts the success of their interpersonal relationship. Prior work shows that constructive disagreement can increase long-term relationship satisfaction, and navigating conflict well leaves people feeling closer than before.

Interpersonal conflicts are increasingly carried out online, particular among youth, as young people are more and more likely to use social and communication technologies to mediate their interpersonal interactions and connect with others. These platforms have the potential to support the challenging but necessary work of arguing well, and yet too often, they undermine it instead. Prior work has found that current consumer-facing communication technologies can erode peer relationships and impede young people’s ability to find common ground. Other work shows that online arguments are more likely than offline ones to lead to damaged and even permanently severed connections.

The design of a platform systematically influences how successful and constructive people are in working through disagreement while using it. Designers have the opportunity to draw inspiration from a robust body of work in relationship science, which provides extensive guidance for supporting young people in the mechanics of arguing well, including cultivating awareness of one’s own emotional state, engaging social perspective-taking, and reframing accusations as needs. Yet, such insights are rarely leveraged, and prior scholarship calls for new design approaches that build on the rich, existing scientific literature on interpersonal relationships.

The goal of this work is to build and evaluate an online communication platform that supports adolescents and young adults in navigating conflict with peers constructively. As a first step toward this goal, we have conducted preliminary design interviews with therapists and social media users and identified a set of novel design concepts that have promise as supports for helping young people attune to their own emotions and the emotions of others while disagreeing.

Specifically, this work asks: how, if at all, do these design concepts affect young people’s experiences with arguments online? We plan to make our messaging app open source and publicly available to serve as a springboard for other researchers and a proof-of-concept example for industry practitioners.


Project Team