Student Well-Being

Teens’ Rising Social Media Use Is Not All Bad News

By Benjamin Herold — September 19, 2018 5 min read
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Teenagers’ use of social media is skyrocketing. But educators should keep in mind that it’s not all bad news.

That is the assessment of a new national survey of 13- to 17-year-olds by the nonprofit Common Sense Media and backed up by other experts, who caution educators not to take too simplistic a view of students’ social media use.

Seven in 10 teens now say they use social media more than once a day, compared with 34 percent six years ago, according to the report, “Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences.”

But surprisingly, Common Sense also found that teenagers overall say using social media makes them feel less lonely, less depressed, and more confident. That’s especially true for the children who scored lowest on the survey’s measures of their overall social-emotional state. And teens 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 Michael Robb, Common Sense’s senior research director. “Teens’ social media lives defy any simplistic judgments.”

Other researchers have found that excessive social media use by teenagers can be associated with a range of negative health effects, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

But overall, outside experts praised the report—and especially its focus on how social media affects teens’ well-being—as a valuable contribution to an emerging body of research.

“This study brings much-needed nuance to our understanding of how social media impacts our most vulnerable children,” said Amanda Lenhart, the director of the Better Life Lab at New America, a think tank. “Overall, social media remains a positive force in their lives—connecting them, as it does all of us, to information and people who provide support.”

Facebook Loses Ground

The new report from Common Sense is the first update of its 2012 survey by the same name.

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

In 2018, though, teens 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.

And Facebook’s decline among younger users has been “precipitous,” according to the new report. Just 15 percent of 13- to 17-year olds now say Facebook is their main social media site, down from 68 percent six years ago.

All told, 81 percent now use social media. Nearly three-fourths check social media almost daily, the survey found, including 38 percent who do so “constantly” or “a few times an hour.”

Corresponding with that dramatic uptick in social media usage has been a rise in the percentage of teenagers who say they are distracted by their devices during homework, sleep, and social time, as well as a decline in the percentage who say they prefer to communicate face to face with their friends.

In 2012, for example, 49 percent of teens said in-person conversation was their favorite way to communicate with friends. Over the past six years, that figure has declined to 32 percent—less than the 35 percent who now say texting is their preferred mode of communication.

“It raises the question of how technology and social media are affecting the way we relate to each other,” said Robb.

“It’s possible that kids are getting caught in a type of self-fulfilling cycle, in which the time they do spend [communicating] face to face is lower quality, because they’re distracted.”

‘Understand Your Students’

Common Sense did find that nearly three-fourths of those surveyed believe technology companies manipulate teenagers to persuade them to spend more time on their devices and platforms.

And a study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association tied excessive digital-media use by teenagers to symptoms of ADHD.

Even so, “we can’t say that all digital media use is harmful,” said Adam Leventhal, one of the JAMA report’s authors and a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California. Context matters, and the effects can vary by individual, Leventhal said.

Teens themselves certainly 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, they 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, the researchers found almost no connection between the frequency of teens’ social media use and their social-emotional well-being.

They also found that those 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.

As a result, Robb said, grown-ups should think twice before rushing to discourage social media use.

Instead, he advised, educators and parents should focus their efforts in the areas where teenagers recognize they are weakest: limiting and shaping their own social media use.

Fifty-seven percent 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 teenagers said they regularly keep their phones on and active at night, leading to sleep that is sometimes interrupted by calls, texts, and notifications.

Parents can have an immediate impact through such basic steps as insisting that teenagers charge their phones outside their bedrooms at night, Robb said.

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.

Such advice will likely be welcomed by 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 K-12 principals are “extremely concerned” about their students’ social media use outside the classroom.

“The No. 1 biggest thing is to understand your students’ social media lives,” Robb said. “It’s really important to know how they’re using these platforms and the types of experiences they’re having.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 19, 2018 edition of Education Week as Social Media Use Among Teenagers Is Rising Rapidly

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