Your Teen’s Secret Social Media Life

worldofateenI’m back again at Steinbrenner High School tonight to participate for the second time as a panelist for their “World of a Teen” program. I posted last year about some questions I anticipated from the audience, and I’m updating some of those answers and thinking of other questions too. One “fun” stat for parents that I saw in a 2018 Common Sense Media study is that 54% of teens said their parents would actually be more worried about social media if they knew what really happens there. But 46% teens also think parents worry too much about social media.

What platforms are teens using today and how are they using them?

A Pew Research Center study from March/April 2018 found that 85% of U.S. teens are using YouTube, 72% are using Instagram, and 69% are using Snapchat. Other popular platforms in the Pew study include Facebook (51%), Twitter (32%), and Tumblr (9%). Facebook use is definitely down among teen users, with 71% of teens in a 2014-2015 survey reporting being users. Use of Snapchat increased from 41% then to 69% now and use of Instagram from 52% to 72%.

The most used platforms, according to the teens, included Snapchat (35% said they used it most often), YouTube (32%), and Instagram (15%). My informal research shows that girls are also into VSCO, a site with the tagline “for creators, be creators.” The app allows uses to take, edit, and publish photos in a journal for public view. Teens also like the app TikTok which allows users to capture, create, and share short-form mobile videos. Lipsi is used for anonymous messaging, which is similar to the now-defunct Yik Yak. The app allows you to create a link that can be shared on platforms like your Instagram bio and through the link, people can send you anonymous messages. You also search users around you and start conversations anonymously.

The highest percentage of teens (35%) in the Common Sense Media study are now texting as the main way of communication with friends, which has replaced “in person” as the most popular communication method, which is the favorite way for 32% of teens. Social media and video chatting are favorite methods among smaller percentages at 16% and 10% respectively.

How much time are teens spending on social media?

The Pew study also found that most teens (95%) have a smartphone or access to one and 45% say that are online almost constantly, which is an increase from 24% in the 2014-2015 study. Girls are heavier users than boys (50% vs. 39%) and Hispanic teens are heavier users than white teen (54% vs. 41%).

Teens are indicating that spending time online is a major problem for their age group, with 60% saying that in another Pew Research Center report. More than half (54%) report spending too much time on their phones and 41% say they spend too much time on social media. Teens are spending an average of nine hours online, according to a Common Sense Media report. Some of that might be for schoolwork or other legitimate reasons, but it is still a considerable number of hours in a day.

Social media platforms know how to keep kids scrolling so social media usage can become an addiction and make it hard to put the phone down. Vibrations and notifications keep bringing teens back to their phones to see what has transpired. Even 72% of teens acknowledged that tech companies are manipulating them to spend more time on their sites in a Common Sense Media study.

Paents might consider establishing some limits with teens, especially if they feel their kids are losing important conversational skills. For example, parent might have rules about phone use during dinner or when you are in the car together. Parents might have their teen put leave their devices outside their bedroom at night. Parents should also practice and model similar good behaviors!

How much of a distraction is social media?

Many teens are reporting distractions from social media. A report from Common Sense Media found that 57% said social media often distracts them when they should be doing homework, 54% say that it distracts them when they should be paying attention to people they are with, and 29% have been woken up at night for a call, text, or notification. Social media can also substitute for spending time with friends, as 42% of teens say they could have been spending time with friends in person instead of using social media.

We also know that social media is a distraction while driving. The Common Sense Media study also found that about 20% of teens check notifications at least sometimes while driving, while 44% say they never do this.

Does social media lead to depression or anxiety as teens compare themselves to others?

The research is somewhat mixed here probably because it depends on the child. The Common Sense Media study found those teens with low social-emotional well-being to have more negative effects than teens with high social-emotional well-being. For example, 70% of those on the low end of the well-being scale have felt excluded or left out when using social media, but only 29% of those on the high end have felt that way. Similarly, 43% of those on the low end have felt bad if people don’t like their posts and 43% have deleted posts that got too few likes, while 11% and 13% on the high end have done so. Digging deeper into teens on the low end of the social-emotional well-being scale did have some positive findings. For example 39% felt less lonely using social media (13% more lonely), 29% felt less depressed (11% more depressed), and 22% felt better about themselves (15% felt worse).

Overall, though, the same study found social media to help teens feel less lonely (25% and 3% less lonely), less depressed (16% and 3% more depressed), less anxious (12% and 8% more anxious), more confident (20% and 5% less confident), better about themselves (18% and 4% worse about themselves), and more popular (21% and 3% less popular).

The Pew Research Center study found that of the 31% of teens who said social media had mostly positive effects, the main reasons included connecting with friends/family, easier to find news/info, meeting others with same interests, keeping you entertained/update, and self expression. The 24% who said it had mostly negative effects cited reasons such as bullying/rumor spreading, harms relationships because of the lack of personal contact, unrealistic views of others’ lives, causes distraction/addiction, and peer pressure. A total of 45% said social media had neither positive or negative effects.

Should a teen even have a phone? Should you confiscate it as punishment?

Given that 95% of teens have a smartphone or access to one, they may be at a social disadvantage without one. But there are certainly teens who can survive without one!

Sometimes with a teen, your only punishment options are taking away a phone or a car. Punishments involving confiscating the phone should be limited to mistakes with the phone, not bad grades or coming home too late. A parent’s first step should be to talk to the teen about the mistake and why it happened. The second step should be possibly remove the phone during certain times, like after school and at night.

What are “safe spaces” online?

Some teens need places to hang out online where they can be free of harassment and bullying. This situation particularly applies to the LGBT community. Tumblr, for example has some LGBT-positive blogs, which can be found by searching LGBTQ in the tags. There are also private LGBTQ groups on Facebook, 7 Cups LGBT Forum, and TrevorSpace. I also checked out safe spaces for women and found the community Sheroes, which is a women’s-only platform. Creative teens might check out Storybooth, a non-judgmental and creative space for teens to share thoughts and stories.

Bullying and harassment are definitely problems online. Instilling in your teen these questions before they post may help them not contribute to the problem:


Does social media have other positive outcomes for teens, other than those mentioned above?

We think so much about the dangers of social media that we forget that it can have some important benefits. First, social media can help teens build stronger friendships. Back in 2012, a Common Sense Media study found that 52% of teens felt social media improved friendships while 4% felt it hurt them.

Second, social media can help teens make a difference in the world. They can start a fundraiser, organize a charity walk, or start an entire movement, like #NeverAgain. The voices of teens are louder than they have ever been before. Additionally, they can learn about issues impacting people around the world as they are exposed online to the work of others.

Social media also connects teens who feel alone in their communities. Maybe they have an interest in a band that their friends don’t share. Communities can be found through social media to connect those kids to one another. In addition to connecting over shared interests, teens might also connect with others dealing with serious issues like drug addiction, eating disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

Social media can also be used to develop and express a teen’s creativity, whether they are a writer, musician, or artist. Finally, social media can be used to develop an online profile for teens for college applications or future jobs.

Resources for parents:

The Truth about Tech: A Road Map for Kids’ Digital Well-Being by Common Sense Media

2 responses to “Your Teen’s Secret Social Media Life”

  1. Great post Kelli. As a parent with an up and coming teen, this is very helpful information. It’s encouraging to see data which suggests that teens recognize that they spend too much time on social media instead of engaging in the real world. It’s up to us as parents to encourage our kids to explore and engage offline.

    1. This will continue to be a challenge for everyone but it seems that the tech companies are starting to see how they are negatively impacting our culture/kids. I just read this article that was eye-opening and added a resource mentioned in it to the bottom of the post.

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