More teens would rather text their friends than hang out IRL

Image: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque
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Either teens are delusional about their social media use, or adults are freaking out over nothing. That seems to be one conclusion of Common Sense Media’s 2018 Social Media, Social Life survey, which polled a nationally representative group of more than 1,000 US teens on use of and feelings about Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and their ilk.

First, the concerning news: Social media use is way up and smartphones are now near ubiquitous. But teens also say that using social media strengthens their friendships with family and friends, provides them a valuable source of creative self-expression, and makes them feel less lonely and more connected. They are fully aware that spending time on their smartphones detracts from homework and face-to-face communication, and they know that tech companies are out to get their attention, designing products to keep them tethered to their phones. But in sum, they’ve got things handled.

“The evidence is overwhelming that, for the most part, teens are doing fine on social media,” said Sierra Filucci, chief executive editor of parenting content at Common Sense. “Through their experiences they are feeling less anxious, less depressed and less lonely,” she said. In a way, teen attitudes sound a lot like those of grownups: Social media is an inevitable part of life, with upsides and downsides, and they are dealing as best they can. 

The survey is self-reported, which means it has limitations. (We can pretty easily delude ourselves, not to mention others.) But in comparison to a separate, nationally representative group of 13-to-17-year-olds Common Sense surveyed in 2012, it shows how teens’ social-media usage and attitudes are generally changing over time.

By this measure, some of the news seems a bit alarming. The percentage of teens who engage with social media multiple times a day rose from 34% in 2012 to 70% in 2018. Sixteen percent report using social media “almost constantly,” and another 22% say they use it several times an hour.

Perhaps most worrisome from the vantage point of grownups who feel there is real value in human, face-to-face connection is this: In 2012, the share of teens who reported that their favorite way to communicate in person was 49%. That figure has since dropped by almost half, to 32% in 2018. Texting is now teens’ communication method of choice.

Ron Dahl, director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent at the University of California, Berkeley, says this may be because teens don’t differentiate the way adults do between in-person and tech-related communication. Texting offers the teen brain—which is super-sensitive about how others evaluate them—more control, which they like. “Interacting in real time is risker, and it’s even riskier when you are self-conscious,” he says. “Social media allows more editing.” 

The study also noted some stark changes in platforms’ popularity over the past six years. In 2012, 68% said Facebook was their main social media site. In 2018, that figure had plummeted to 15%; in case you have been asleep for five years, Instagram and Snapchat now rule.

The distractions of smartphones

Teens seem aware of the ways that their phones command their attention. More than half (54%) of young adults agree that social media “often” distracts them from the people they are with, up from 44% before. “Six years from now, we may see these statistics as quaint,” the report warns.

Mirroring adults, they seem annoyed at the pull their phones have over them, with 44% saying say they get frustrated with their friends for being on their phones so much when they’re hanging out together. They find their parents’ smartphone use irritating, too: 33% of teens wish their parents would get off their devices. This may bode well as they gain self-awareness and realize they, too, are part of the problem. “They are bothered by their friends and parents being on social media,” Dahl said. – “They see and feel like they are not being paid attention, and they probably don’t recognize that they do that, too.”

The report arrives at a moment where doctors and psychologists are debating the negative effects on teen mental and physical health, and tech companies are being held to account for designing platforms and devices that are meant to be intentionally addictive. The American Heart Association suggests limiting screen time to protect the health of children’s hearts. Some worry that kids are losing their ability to communicate with each other in the real world.

Others argue the whole thing has been overblown. Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychiatry and the director of the psychopharmacology clinic at the Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote in the New York Times that fears of a teenage anxiety epidemic are way overblown.

One reason many parents are panicking, he says, is that they “have bought into the idea that digital technology — smartphones, video games and the like — are neurobiologically and psychologically toxic.” But such dubious reasoning comes from a small handful of studies which he says have serious limitations, including assuming correlations are causation: that phones are causing anxiety, rather than anxiety causing kids to turn to their phones. The real question, he says, is whether digital technology is producing the “enduring changes in the brain that addictive drugs do.” He says so far, there is little evidence of that.

The relationship between smartphones and sleep

There is growing awareness about the intense growth and heightened sensitivity of teens’ brains in adolescence. Neurobiological and hormonal changes elevate their desire to feel a sense of belonging, to be respected and admired, and to find meaning. It is a period of peak growth and potential, but also tremendous risks. (It is no coincidence that the risk of death rises dramatically in adolescence, from causes including suicide, violence, depression, substance abuse, and sexually-transmitted disease, to name a few.)  Smartphones seem to amplify and exacerbate what is already happening, including a strong desire to communicate and connect. As danah boyd says, teens are not addicted to technology, they are addicted to each other. Tech is simply their medium.

Both Dahl and Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author, argue there is one area that adults should be truly concerned about: Teens’ sleep. “We know all we need to know about the importance of sleep to human functioning,” Damour says. “If we wanted to invent something to undermine thriving, we would invent something to undermine sleep.” The phone may qualify. Damour says one of the only longitudinal studies to make a connection between mobile phone use and mental health problems identified sleep as the main culprit: kids whose phones disturbed their sleep went onto have greater mental health issues.

Dahl says smartphones can initiate a vicious cycle: A teen is anxious and worried, so he uses his phone at night, which stimulates his brain and body and causes him to ruminate more. Meanwhile, the light from the phone convinces him he should be awake, so he keeps scrolling. “You have this spiral of effects,” Dahl says.

According to the Common Sense survey, teens do try to self-regulate phone use (or respond to their parents’ attempts to regulate) at bedtime or during meals. Few, however, seem to feel the need to turn phones off with friends.

The study warns of plenty of risks that come with social media. Teens who report lower social and emotional well-being (which the survey assessed) were significantly more likely to be cyberbullied: a shocking 35%, compared to 5% of those kids on the higher end of the social-emotional well being scale. Filucci says we need to figure out how to ID these kids and help them.

There is plenty of research that simply has not yet been done, including longitudinal studies on what impact phones have on development over time, including how impacts differ depending on the age at which one gets a phone. Damour worries that for some kids, there’s no escape the world of social media. “For some kids, especially if their social lives are not going well, contact 24 hours a day is not helping.”

But by large margins, teens say they are doing okay. “Across every measure in our survey, teens are more likely to say that social media has a positive rather than a negative effect on how they feel,” the report says.

In other words, teens seem to be figuring how to manage their phone use through the time-tested tactic of trial and error. Filucci says parents should encourage their kids to think critically about the costs and benefits of screen time. “As parents, we want to jump in and solve everything. To some extent, we need to let them negotiate some of those social dynamics on their own.”