Dec 11, 2023 - Technology

Pew: Many teens use social media "almost constantly"

Amount teens say they use apps and websites
Data: Pew; Chart: Axios Visuals

Nearly 1 in 5 teens say they're on YouTube or TikTok "almost constantly," according to a Pew Research Center report.

Why it matters: The report paints a picture of a rising generation whose lives are dominated by a handful of social platforms — amid ongoing debate over the possible mental health harms that could result.

Driving the news: Pew's latest survey on teens and technology — which polled 1,453 kids online, ages 13-17 — found roughly the same amount of internet use as last year, but substantially more than when the survey was conducted in 2014-2015.

  • Nearly half of teens say they use the internet "almost constantly" — which is on par with what they said last year, but roughly double the 24% who said this in the 2014-2015 survey.
  • Roughly 9 out of 10 use YouTube, making it by far the most popular social media channel for teens — and 71% of them use it once a day or more.
  • Most teens use TikTok (63%), Snapchat (60%) and Instagram (59%), but use of Facebook (33%) and Twitter (20%) is declining.

Of note: This year, Pew asked teens for the first time about BeReal, an app that encourages users to send a photo once a day to their friends in real time — and found that 13% were using it.

By the numbers: A separate poll by Gallup this year found that teens spend an average of 4.8 hours on social media daily.

  • 51% of U.S. teenagers spend at least four hours daily on social media, Gallup found, with the heaviest users being older teens and girls.
  • "Personality traits [and] parental restrictions are key factors in teens' use," Gallup said.

📲 Zoom out: While debate over adult social media use tends to focus on the spread of disinformation, debate about teen use tends to focus on the risks of cyberbullying, harassment and abuse — and on whether the medium fosters eating disorders and self-harm.

  • U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a warning this year about the threats that social media poses to kids' mental health, which range from sleep disruptions to suicidal thoughts.
  • At the same time, many teens say that these platforms improve their lives, entertaining them and making them feel less lonely.

Reality check: Now that social media has become an essential part of growing up, doctors and parents are figuring out how to safeguard kids, given that government efforts to regulate the tech giants that control the platforms generally haven't panned out.

  • Boston Children's Hospital — which runs a leading treatment program for children with internet disorders — just updated its guide to social media use for families.
  • The guide was developed by the hospital's Digital Wellness Lab, which initiated what it calls the "Inspired Internet Pledge" — a commitment that tech companies can sign promising to make the internet a safer place for young people. (Pinterest and TikTok are signatories).

A forthcoming book by prominent New York University social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues that "we have overprotected children in the real world and underprotected them in the virtual world," as Haidt put it in his Substack newsletter.

  • The book, "The Anxious Generation," argues that the decline of play-based childhood in favor of phone-based childhood has led to an unhealthy "rewiring" of kids' brains.
  • These factors have resulted in the "foundational harms" of "social deprivation, sleep deprivation, attention fragmentation, and addiction," according to the book.

What they're saying: "Teens are more likely to say social media has had a negative effect on others rather than on themselves," says Monica Anderson, a lead researcher on the Pew report.

  • "There's a lot of cultural debate over the impact on their mental health," she added. "For us to understand the impact, it's important for us to get these baseline measures."

Details: The Pew report looked at differences in teen social media use by gender, race, age and household income.

  • Gender: Teen girls are more likely than boys to say they use Instagram (66% vs. 53%) and to say that they "almost constantly" use TikTok (22% vs. 12%) and Snapchat (17% vs. 12%).
    • Teen boys are more likely than girls to use Discord (34% vs. 22%) and Twitch (22% vs. 11%).
  • Race and ethnicity: White teens are less likely than Black and Hispanic teens to say that they're on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok "almost constantly."
    • 80% of Black teens report using TikTok, compared with 70% of Hispanic teens and 57% of white teens.
    • 32% of Hispanic teens say they are on TikTok "almost constantly," compared with 20% of Black teens and 10% of white teens.
  • Age: Older teens are more likely than younger ones to use most of the platforms.
    • For instance, only 45% of 13- and 14-year-olds said they used Instagram, versus 68% of 15- to 17-year-olds.
  • Household income: Teens in households earning less than $30,000 a year were more likely to say they use Facebook and TikTok than teens in higher-earning households.

The bottom line: Reading books and watching television are starting to sound like quaint pastimes.

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