Yes, teens use social media more often than ever. But the positives appear to outweigh the negatives, according to a national survey released Monday by Common Sense Media.
“Many of the insights are likely to challenge some parents’ notions of whether social media is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for teens,” said Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense in the introduction to the new report, Social Media, Social Life. “Like teenagers themselves,” he noted, the results present a complex picture. “In general, however, teens are more likely to say that social media has a positive effect on how they feel,” Steyer said.
The detailed survey from the non-profit organization is a follow up to an earlier Common Sense study released in 2012 on social media use among U.S. teenagers, ages 13-17. And some of the differences in six years are striking.
For example, in 2012, 34 percent of teens said they used social media more than once a day. In the 2018 survey that number more than doubled, to 70 percent. Smartphone ownership by teens also dramatically increased, from 41 percent to 89 percent.
The number of teens who said they don’t use social media at all barely budged from 17 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2018.
The big social media platform loser among teens appears to be Facebook, even as social media use increased. Six years ago, it was identified as the “main social networking site” by 68 percent of teens. This year, it’s only 15 percent. Snapchat and Instagram are now the most popular, with Facebook in third place.
Overall, Common Sense said teens are more likely to view social media as a good thing in their emotional lives. For example, 16 percent said using social media makes them feel less depressed and 25 percent said they feel less lonely, compared to 3 percent who said social media use made them feel more depressed or lonely. The report states that even though teen social media use has skyrocketed in six years, “teens are no more likely to report having a negative reaction to social media on any of these (emotional well-being) measures today than they were in 2012.”
Even more-vulnerable teens — those who Common Sense says rate low on a social-emotional well-being scale — are more likely to report a positive than a negative effect. That same group of teens is also more likely to say social media is more important in their lives (46 percent) than those in at the higher-end of the social-emotional well-being scale (32 percent).
The survey also found that roughly one in ten teens, or 13 percent, said they’ve been cyberbullied at some point.
It’s the large number of positives that is likely to surprise most people, said Mike Robb, Common Sense’s senior director of research. “I think the data showing that kids are far more likely to say that using social media makes them feel less lonely, less depressed, more confident, and better about themselves is the most counter-intuitive, given what most people’s perceptions are about social media,” Robb told GeekWire.
He also said the magnified effect, both positive and negative, for especially vulnerable kids suggests a one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with teens’ social-emotional well being may not be a good idea.
“In other words, just saying, put it down or delete your account is unlikely to be a magic-bullet solution to rising levels of depression or anxiety,” Robb said. “We don’t want to accidentally cut off a major source of support for teens.”
Another surprise Robb points to is the decline in teens’ preference for face-to-face interaction. He plans to keep an eye on future surveys to see if the trend holds. “It raises the question of how technology and social media specifically are affecting the way we communicate and relate to each other,” he said.
One of the biggest downsides of social media use? Distraction. Some 57 percent of teens said social media often distracts them when they should be doing homework, and 54 percent also are distracted when they should be paying to attention to people they’re with.
Teens are also annoyed by the distraction of others. Nearly half, 44 percent, say they get frustrated with their friends for being on the phone when they’re together. And a third wish their parents would spend less time on their devices.
A different survey released in August by Pew Research Center also found distraction was a big issue. In the Pew report, 54 percent of teens said they spent too much time on social media, and 51 percent said they often or sometimes find their parent to be distracted by their own mobile phone use when they’re trying to have a conversation with them.
Robb says the findings on distraction come at the same time that 72 percent of teens in the Common Sense survey think tech companies manipulate users to spend more time on their devices. Combined, he said, that means people recognize the problem of distraction and potential causes, “but we struggle with solutions. It makes it all the more important for teens and adults to develop the skills to use social media and their devices more intentionally, and make clearer choices about the best times for them to be connected and disconnected,” Robb said.
So should parents worry about what teens are doing on social media? The teens themselves appear split. More than half, 54 percent, told Common Sense that parents worry too much about their use of social media. But nearly half, 46 percent, agreed with the statement that if parents knew what actually happens on social media, they’d be a lot more worried about it.