Enough with complaining that young people these days are addicted to their phones. The question you should be asking is: What do they know that you don't?
Believe it or not, there are advantages to using technology like a teen. I asked a handful of 11- to 17-year-olds to tell me what apps and gear they couldn't live without. They taught me to question my own habits: Why do I use email to talk with friends? Why do I only share my best photos?
Teens are among the most creative users of technology, in part because they don't have adults' assumptions about how things are supposed to work.
"I will just throw away the directions and see what I can make of it," Kapp Singer, a 14-year-old from San Francisco, told me.
Owning a smartphone, often a hand-me-down, means many teens can be pretty much always online, changing how they stay in touch with friends and express themselves.
Snapchat, the photo-messaging app in which images disappear after a few seconds, often puzzles adults who think of photos as formal, even permanent. But teens love it because of what can be said with instant pictures, especially disposable ones.
I'm not suggesting that everyone should immediately use Snapchat, but what if you tried it?
I did for a week, with my good-natured septuagenarian parents. After some trial and error, they were sending me "snaps": my dad struggling to pack a suitcase, my mom making funny faces. I shared a snap of tomatoes starting to grow in my garden.
My mom didn't like how quickly snaps disappeared. (A tip for Snapchatting moms: Press an iPhone's home and power buttons at the same time to save a screenshot of the snap.) But my dad thought it would be a good way to keep up with children and grandchildren. The ability to communicate with my parents in snippets meant I could keep up with them even when I didn't have time to call or write.
The experience mostly taught us we should share a lot more photos. The snaps we send aren't "important," but sharing those moments brings us closer together.
We can't just think of young people as future adults. Some of their habits are borne of uniquely teen circumstances, like not having a car. Yet from my conversations with them—and the social scientists who study them like a foreign culture—I found five practices that could change how you use technology.
"Email is just where all the college applications go," says Ryan Orbuch, a 17-year-old from Boulder, Colo. (The only thing he finds more laborious is email's even more antiquated cousin, voice mail.)Only 6% of teens exchange email daily, according to the Pew Research Center. They reserve email for official communications, or venues like school where alternatives are banned.
Instead, he uses a fragmented set of messaging apps based on the people he wants to communicate with. For example, he uses Snapchat for one-on-one conversations, Facebook FB -0.03% Messenger to chat with groups and Twitter TWTR +0.93% to keep up with people he's never met in person.
For teens and adults alike, a message app is only as good as the network of people you can reach with it. The lesson for adults is that these newer tools, including apps like Apple's AAPL -0.42% iMessage, WhatsApp and Kik, drop the cumbersome formalities of email. There's no "Dear," no "Best Regards."
These apps also do a better job at managing conversations: Facebook Messenger lets you excuse yourself from irrelevant conversations, for instance.
There's also value in not having every single message stored on an email server. The idea is to just enable a regular conversation. "If someone was recording us as we were walking down the street, that would be weird—not because we have something to hide," Ryan says.
Express Yourself Through Images
The lesson for adults is that you can express things in images that would be time-consuming to write out, or read. "I couldn't scan 50 people's posts and texts as quickly as I could 50 people's posts on Instagram," says Kapp, the San Francisco 14-year-old.Today, 91% of teens post a photo of themselves on social media sites, according to Pew. Photos and short videos shared on Instagram or Vine can capture a funny moment, or say something that might offend (or anger parents) if it were written out.
But who wants to see all of these images? Oversharing can annoy teens, too. Instagram and other photo apps are actually an antidote: Instead of filling everyone's inbox, people share an image widely, while viewers choose whom they want to "follow." If people have too much to say, you can simply unfollow or mute them.
And don't just limit yourself to photos. Colorful hieroglyphics called "emoji" are available for the iPhone and Android keyboards, and many people use them to highlight messages. If those are too tiny, try the cartoonlike "stickers" found on Facebook, Kik, WeChat and other messaging services. Feeling frustrated? Send a sticker of a dog chasing its own tail.
Hide in Plain Sight
"Teenagers are growing up in a world where they assume surveillance," says Danah Boyd, author of "It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens."Adults assume that young people don't care about privacy. But look closer: Some 58% of teen social-media users say they cloak their messages, according to Pew, using inscrutable pictures and unexplained jokes to communicate in code.
Natalie Jaffe, a 17-year-old from Pittsburgh, says she adjusts what she shares based on who may be able to see it. "I just make sure what I post is appropriate," she says, knowing that her 600 Instagram followers include both friends and parents.
The lesson: You can be "public" without having embarrassing things on the permanent record.
This could involve carefully managing the flow of information, through using disappearing-message apps or Facebook audience-privacy controls. It could also mean posting publicly about something without specifically naming it, known as subtweeting.
But take it from a teen: Subtweets can backfire. "That can always cause drama or confusion," Natalie warns.
Find Your Own Server
That's one reason playing the online game Minecraft has caught on like wildfire among teens, particularly with middle schoolers who have limited ability to gather on their own in the real world. Minecraft is like a gargantuan virtual Lego set you can work on together, without having to go to anyone's house.The Internet is a big public square. But it also has neighborhoods where you gather with friends and just hang out.
After school, San Francisco 11-year-old Traylor Smith-Wallis logs into Minecraft and a group Skype chat with as many as 18 buddies.
When they gather online, it's often on a server Traylor or one of his friends runs—that is to say, creep-free. "It's our virtual world, and you can make it whatever you want," he says. (His parents usually listen in the background, he adds, just in case one of his friends curses.)
The Internet has long had equivalents to Minecraft servers for niche communities. Even in the age of social networks, adults often form groups or discussion boards for their neighborhoods, hobbies or health interests.
Throw Away the User Manual
Teens think, "How can I test and experiment and bend this thing to my will, and make it do what I want?" says Pew Research Center's Amanda Lenhart, who studies how youths use tech.The reason teens are such avid early adopters isn't that they have an innate knowledge of tech—it's that they aren't afraid to break it.
(Of course, there are also adults with this mind-set. They're called hackers, and some of them are billionaires.)
Sometimes, they'll even invent new uses. Teen users of Venmo, an app for exchanging small amounts of money, have begun to pay friends $1 or another token amount, just to say "thanks" or "high-five." It's like a Like button with monetary value. Part of the reason may be that Venmo makes transactions public, though not the amounts.
The lesson: Experimentation is just as important as instructions, and don't despair if you don't have instant competence. Talk about new technology with your friends.
And when all else fails, flag down a teenager—you'd be surprised what you can learn.