The findings of a recent study by Common Sense Media have been released, revealing the social media habits, preferences, and behaviors of American teenagers aged 13 – 17. The latest research completes the second round of a study first conducted in 2012. The result is a measure of how teens’ relationship with social media has evolved over a period of exponential growth (2012 – 2018) for multiple social media channels. Some of the results unveil little, reinforcing established assumptions, but other findings have shown to be far more complex.
An area that should surprise few is the platforms of choice section. Teens are on Snapchat. And Instagram comes in at a close second. 75% of all teen respondents reported using Snapchat, followed by 73% using Instagram. These two paced far ahead of the 52% on Facebook and 24% on Twitter. Divides started to grow once teens were asked about their favorites. 41% of teens claimed Snapchat to be their favorite, with Instagram following at a distant 22%.
Between 2012 and 2018, there are some staggering comparative figures. The most alarming of which was when teens were asked to reveal their favorite forms of communication. In 2012, 49% of teens reported face-to-face as their favorite form of communication, followed by 33% who reported texting. In 2018, in-person communication has been eclipsed, with 32% preferring face-to-face and 35% preferring texting. This finding is likely heavily linked to two other areas of growth. In 2012, 41% of teens owned smartphones and 34% checked social media multiple times a day. Both trends have skyrocketed to 89% of teens owning smartphones and 70% saying they check social media multiple times a day in 2018.
But contrary to popular belief, excessive social media consumption does not appear to have many of the harmful consequences frequently rumored. In fact, more 2018 teens reported social media helps them feel less lonely, less depressed, less anxious and more confident than teens who reported the opposite across the same categories. While this doesn’t by any means settle the issue, it does provide evidence that social media plays a somewhat beneficial role in teens’ mental health.
Taking it even further, numerous teen respondents claimed that eliminating social media, would have a damaging effect on many of their relationships with friends. On a first pass, that finding could pull one back towards concern for an overly social media dependent generation. But teens today are much smarter than they get credit for. 72% of teens are aware or believe that tech companies update their products to manipulate them to spend more time on them. It just appears as though they don’t mind. This type of self awareness displays maturity on par with some of their adult counterparts who are aware of the changes happening to their favorite apps, but use them anyway out of the convenience they provide. And why wouldn’t they?
Beyond the gratification social media gives teens in engaging, planning, and sharing with friends, it also provides them with important social foundations that they use for positive ends as well. Cyber-bullying was another topic covered in the study. And while cyber-bullying is inherently laced with the type of negativity that keeps parents up at night, there was encouragement from teen respondents on the matter. One 17-year-old girl was quoted saying, “I’m [a] normal teenager, my friends are great, we help each other. We don’t let people bully us. Or anyone we see doing it we stand up and fight back.”
Another 15-year-old boy stated, “Some people would call me names and make stuff up about me. Others would be positive and tell me not to worry about those people who are talking about me.”
And in these responses, we come to the crux of the report to date. Determining if social media is good or bad for teens is not a black and white matter. Like so many things, it is very much enshrouded in shades of grey, complicated by various nuances and complexities that skew it in both directions. It is undoubtedly a place where teens are exposed to material beyond their years; some of it excessively disturbing. But it’s also where they are now finding critical touch-points of support that they may otherwise have never had. Moving forward, it’s important to be aware of these findings, but more importantly, how to use them.
As a marketer, I’m walking away with a couple key takeaways. The first and by far the most important is a heightened sense of responsibility. Teens are spending more time with social media now than ever, and it’s playing an ever-increasing role in their livelihood. Working at Civilian has afforded me the benefit of handling campaigns that I actually believe in; that don’t require mental or moral backflips to justify the importance of. With this knowledge in hand, we can craft content that never loses sight of the bigger picture at play. But it’s easier said than done. The second takeaway is to not condescend to teens. Clearly, they have an ear to the ground and a potentially better understanding of social media than many of the adults trying to influence them. Establishing a respectful relationship is central to connecting with anyone. Teens are no different, and they are past the point of being treated like children. Especially on social media, where they have a much easier time lashing back at content they view as off-base.
It will be interesting to see how relationships with social media continue to evolve. It’s safe to say that it has matured beyond being seen as a ‘fad’ and is solidifying itself as an irreplaceable social extension, particularly among younger audiences. As these teens grow up, bring their habits with them and new teens take their place, it’s in all of our best interests to not lose sight of the good we can do with such powerful connection right in our pockets.