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Teen Social Media Use Is Skyrocketing. But Don't Panic, New Research Says

Snapchat.pngTeens' use of social media has exploded over the past six years, while their preference for face-to-face interactions with friends has markedly declined.

But the sky does not appear to be falling, according to the results from a new national survey of teenagers by the nonprofit Common Sense Media. 

Surprisingly, the group found, teens on the whole say using social media makes them feel less lonely, less depressed, and more confident. They also say they're aware of social media's potential to distract and manipulate them, even if they sometimes struggle to moderate their own use.  

"It's not all bad news," said Common Sense senior research director Michael Robb.  "Teens' social media lives defy any simplistic judgments."

The new report, titled "Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences," was released Monday. It's the first update of a 2012 survey by the same name, creating a unique window through which to view the rapid, dramatic shifts in how teenagers communicate and relate to each other.

Among the most striking findings: 

  • 70 percent of teens now say they use social media more than once a day, compared to 34 percent of teens in 2012. 
  • Snapchat is now the most popular social media platform among teens, with 41 percent saying it's the one use most frequently.
  • 35 percent of teens now say texting is their preferred mode of communication with friends, more than the 32 percent who prefer in-person communication. In 2012, 49 percent of teens preferred in-person communication.
  • One-fourth of teens say using social media makes them feel less lonely, compared to 3 percent who say it makes them feel more lonely.
  • Nearly three-fourths of teens believe tech companies manipulate them to get them to spend more time on their devices and platforms.

For K-12 educators and administrators, many of whom say they're struggling to keep up with students' social media use, the new survey results offer both solace and insight, Robb said.

While often highlighted, the experiences of young people who have had the most problems with social media do not appear to be reflective of teens as a whole, he said. And it's increasingly evident that parents and educators have a clear role to play in helping teens learn to limit and mold their own social media use.

"The number one biggest thing is to understand your students' social media lives," Robb said. 

Facebook Supplanted by Snapchat, Instagram 

Back in 2012, Facebook dominated the landscape, and social media was something for teens to periodically check in on.

In 2018, though, "social media" is no longer a monolith. Teens now communicate, express themselves, share experiences and ideas, rant, gossip, flirt, plan, and stay on top of current events using a mix of platforms that compete ferociously for their attention.

The ephemeral-messaging service Snapchat is particularly popular, Common Sense found. Sixty-three percent of teens say they use Snapchat, and 41 percent say it's the platform they use most frequently. 

Instagram, meanwhile, is used by 61 percent of teens.  

And Facebook's decline among teens has been "precipitous," according to the new report. Just 15 percent of teens now say Facebook is their main social media site, down from 68 percent six years ago. (Softening the blow: Facebook owns Instagram.)

All told, 81 percent of teens now use social media, and 70 percent use it more than once a day.

Nearly three-fourths check social media almost daily, Common Sense found, including 38 percent of teens who do so "constantly" or "a few times an hour." More than one-third of teenagers post their own content to social media daily. Older teens and girls tend to be the heaviest social media users.

Because these new technologies have so quickly become integral to most teenagers' lives, Robb said, it can be easy for adults to focus on what is being displaced. 

That's not entirely misguided—teens' declining preference for in-person communication is particularly worth noting, he said.

One question to conside, Robb said, is if that trend reflects a vicious cycle in which the quality of the face-to-face time teens do have is diminished because their friends are more interested in their phones than in each other. The survey data suggest that could be the case: The proportion of teens who say social media "often distracts me when I should be paying attention to the people I'm with" has grown from 44 percent in 2012 to 54 percent in 2018.

But it's also important for parents and educators to ask what they might be missing out on, Robb said. 

Almost a third of teens consider social media "very" or "extremely" important in their lives, the survey found. For many teens, social media is the primary vehicle for organizing and participating in their social lives. And the teens who score lowest on measures of happiness, depression, self-esteem, loneliness, and relationships with their parents are the most likely to say social media is important to them, Common Sense found.

Before rushing to discourage social media use, Robb said, grown-ups should think twice.

"You don't want to accidentally cut off a major source of support and connections for teens who really need it," he said.

Overstating the Social Media Threat?

And big-picture, teens themselves don't seem to feel that social media is nearly the threat that it's been made out to be by parents and popular culture.

Overall, teens are not more likely to self-report feeling lonely, depressed, or unhappy after using social media than they were in 2012, Common Sense found, in fact, that 20 percent of teens said using social media makes them feel more confident, compared to 4 percent who said it makes them feel less confident.

In addition, the researchers found almost no connection between the frequency of teens' social media use and their social-emotional well-being (by asking teens whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as "I like myself" and "Compared to other people my age, I feel normal.")

And despite popular fears, the majority of teens surveyed said that getting new friends, followers, and likes on social media is not particularly important to them.

Such findings may come as a surprise to many educators, who often describe a losing battle to keep up with their students' social media use. A recent survey by the Education Week Research Center, for example, found that more than half of U.S. K-12 school principals are 'extremely concerned' about their students' social media use outside the classroom.

Robb said the takeaway is not that everything is hunky-dory, but that there are specific areas where grown-ups can help.

Digital distractions, for example, are clearly a problem, and teens have a "decidedly mixed track record" at regulating their own social media usage, Common Sense found. 

Fifty-seven percent of teens agreed that social media distracts them from homework, for example, but fewer than one-third usually turn off or silence their phones during homework time. Similarly, 44 percent of cellphone-owning teens said they regularly keep their phones on and active at night, leading to sleep that is sometimes interrupted by calls, texts, and notifications.  

On that front, Robb said, parents can have an immediate impact through such basic steps as insisting that teens charge their phones outside of their bedrooms at night.

Educators can also target their supports better by recognizing that students who are the most socially and emotionally vulnerable also appear most likely to experience feelings of missing out or low self-worth as the result of using social media, he said.

And there are steps the companies behind the most popular social media sites can take to encourage healthier use of their products, Robb said.

Nearly two-thirds of teen Snapchat users, for example, say they've participated in a feature called Snapstreaks, which rewards friends who communicate with each other over the platform every day. More than a third of teens who've tried the feature find it stressful, Common Sense found. 

It's a great example of why so many teens believe they are being manipulated by tech companies, Robb said. And the adults around them shouldn't take for granted that social media has to present them with such powerful forces to resist.

"It's low-hanging fruit that [Snapchat] could address by making design choices that don't deliberately put undue pressure on teens to use a platform when they don't have any internal need to," he said.

Photo: Bill Tiernan for Education Week. 


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