Sep 10, 2018

Devices dominate teenagers' social lives

Kim Hart, author of Cities
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Reproduced from "Social media, social life," Rideout, V., and Robb, M. B. (2018); Chart: Axios Visuals

Today's teens prefer texting over in-person communication, use social media multiple times a day, and admit that digital distractions interfere with homework, personal relationships and sleep, according to a new survey of 13- to 17-year-olds.

Why it matters: Concerns over the negative impact of social media use have increased recently with reports of teen depression, suicide and cyberbullying on the rise. The study by Common Sense Media, a non-profit group focused on tech and media's impact on kids, shows teens have a complicated relationship with technology.

Key findings:

  • 81% of teens use social media, with 70% saying they use it multiple times a day, up from 34% in 2012. And 89% have their own smartphone, more than doubling since 2012.
  • 72% of teens believe that tech companies manipulate users to spend more time on devices.
  • The proportion of teens who prefer in-person interaction has plummeted from 49% in 2012 to 32% in 2018. Texting is now the favorite mode of communication.
  • 13% of teens say they've been cyber-bullied.
  • 33% of teens say they wish their parents would spend less time on their devices, up from 21% in 2012.
  • In 2012, 68% said their go-to social site was Facebook. That number fell to 15% in 2018, with Snapchat and Instagram the new favorites.

The social life conundrum: 54% of teens agree that using social media often distracts them when they are with people, and 44% say they get frustrated when their friends are using their phones while hanging out. Yet 55% say they hardly ever or never put their devices away when hanging out with friends.

"I wonder if we are seeing the beginnings of some weird negative feedback loop where we can't help but be on our devices when we're with other people, and we get upset with others for being distracted by their devices when they're with us — so therefore we don't want to hang out with people in person anymore because it's easier to interact with them on our devices."
— Vicky Rideout, independent researcher who conducted the surveys in 2012 and 2018

The impact: Interestingly, despite the increased use of social media, teens are more likely to say that social media has a positive effect on them. For instance, 25% say using social media makes them feel less lonely, compared to 3% who say it makes them feel more lonely.

  • Yes, but: Still, more than two-thirds of teens agree with the statement, "social media has a negative impact on many people my age."
  • And 40% agree with the statement, "I sometimes wish I could go back to a time when there was no such thing as social media."

Be smart: For parents and teachers, Rideout says one solution is to model restraint by setting aside particular times — such as during meals, while doing homework, and before bedtime — to silence devices.

Go deeper: Find the full report here.

Editor's note: This piece has been corrected to show the survey found 13% of teens say they have been cyber bullied (not 35%).

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