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What Teens Really Think About Their Social Media Lives: Tips for Storytellers

Social Media and Teens

© Photo by Jen Siska

© Photo by Jen Siska

In Common Sense Media’s latest research, teens share their experiences on everything from digital distraction to how social media makes them feel.

What teenagers look like they’re doing and what they’re actually doing can be two totally different things — especially when it comes to social media. A bored-looking ninth-grader could be majorly bonding with her new BFF on Snapchat. A 10th-grade gamer may complain loudly when you cut off his internet but be secretly relieved. An awkward eighth-grader may be YouTube’s hottest star. To find out what’s really going on in teens’ social media lives, Common Sense Media polled more than 1,100 13- to 17-year-olds in its latest nationally-representative research, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences. The new study updates our 2012 study on teens and social media with surprising new findings that address many of parents’ most pressing concerns about issues such as cyberbullying,depression, and even the popularity of Facebook (spoiler alert: It’s not).

Why now? Today, 89 percent of teens have their own smartphones (compared with 41 percent in 2012). They grew up right alongside Instagram and Snapchat. They do research papers on Google Classroom, find emotional support on teen forums, share poetry on Tumblr, and may text “I love you” before they’d ever say it to your face. But concerns over the negative consequences of social media have grown in tandem with its popularity among teens. Grim reports on teen suicide, addiction,cyberbullying, and eroding social skills have caused many people, from parents to teachers to the tech industry itself, to look at social media as a potential contributor — if not the cause — of these issues. This survey clarifies some of those concerns and draws attention to the reasons some kids are deeply affected by — and connected to — their digital worlds.

Key Findings of Social Media Report & Actionable Insights:

  • Thumbs mostly up. Only a very few teens say that using social media has a negative effect on how they feel about themselves; many more say it has a positive effect. Twenty-five percent say social media makes them feel less lonely (compared to 3 percent who say more); eighteen percent say it makes them feel better about themselves (compared to 4 percent who say worse); and 16 percent say it makes them feel less depressed (compared to 3 percent who say more).

  • Managing devices is hit or miss. Many turn off, silence, or put away their phones at key times such as when going to sleep, having meals with people, visiting family, or doing homework. But many others do not: A significant number of teens say they “hardly ever” or “never” silence or put away their devices.

  • Less talking, more texting. In 2012, about half of all teens still said their favorite way to communicate with friends was in person; today less than a third say so. But more than half of all teens say that social media takes them away from personal relationships and distracts them from paying attention to the people they’re with.  

  • Vulnerable teens need extra support. Social media is significantly more important in the lives of vulnerable teens (those who rate themselves low on a social-emotional well-being scale). This group is more likely to say they’ve had a variety of negative responses to social media (such as feeling bad about themselves when nobody comments on or likes their posts). But they’re also more likely to say that social media has a positive rather than a negative effect on them.

Tips for Storytellers:

  • Show kids (and their parents) putting phones away or on “do not disturb” at key times, such as mealtimes or bedtime. Kids know social media can get in the way of important things, but they have a hard time regulating their own use. Modeling mindful and intentional use can help to normalize behaviors. It’s also worthwhile to depict kids who take phone breaks for a day or more to feel less distracted, or to avoid digital drama.

  • Highlight the teens who need the most help. An honest depiction of teen social media use for a depressed teen might include a teen feeling unusually happy after receiving online validation (through likes or replies), but also deeply affected by comparing themselves negatively to others online (like on Instagram), or not getting likes or feedback after posting something.

  • Show the creative side of media to inspire teens to use media to learn and grow. Teens express themselves in a variety of ways on social media: creating and sharing art, photography, poetry and other writing, and music. Take care to show kids creating with their mobile devices, and not just consuming or mindlessly scrolling.

To find out the latest on what teens are doing on social media, check out Common Sense Media.

Michael Robb, Ph.D.

Senior Director of Research, Common Sense

Caroline Knorr

Senior Parenting Editor, Common Sense

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