Common Sense Media: Teen Social Media Use 2012-2018

The researchers at Common Sense Media deliver again: this time, with an in-depth look at social media use among adolescents. The report “Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences” examines answers to salient questions that adults – including parents, educators, mental health professionals, and public policy makers –  want to know about teen social media use. It’s a follow up on their 2012 report “Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives.”

The 2012 study surveyed a thousand adolescents age thirteen to seventeen. The 2018 study surveyed just over eleven-hundred adolescents in the same age group. It’s true – the social media landscape is vastly different now than it was just eight years ago. But the reasons for conducting the survey remain the same. The researchers at Common Sense intend to offer “an up-to-date snapshot of social media use among today’s teens.” The authors sought answers from teens on the following broad topics:

  • How often they use platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat
  • What role social media plays in their lives
  • What kind of experiences they have while using social media
  • How social media makes them feel

The follow-up survey offers objective data that helps us understand how teens’ views one these subjects changed over the past six years, which gives us a window through which we can glimpse the evolution of social media use by teens and observe changes in the way social media impacts their lives – all based on answers provided by teens themselves. Without giving away too much, we’ll tease you with one nugget of information from the study: in 2012, 68% of teens said they used Facebook as their primary social media site, while in 2018, only 15% cited Facebook as their go-to platform. As the authors of the report say in their introduction:

“A lot can happen in six years.”

2012 to 2018: The Differences

To drill down on those changes and get specific answers on some of the more mercurial aspects of teen social media use, the 2018 version of the survey included questions such as:

  • What’s your favorite way of communicating with friends and family – face-to-face or through social media/text?
  • Do you think social media detracts from face-to-face interactions?
  • How important is social media in your life overall?
  • Does social media improve or impede creative expression?
  • Does social media improve or impede meaningful communication?
  • Do you regulate your own social media use?
  • Do you put away or turn off your electronic devices in social situations, during meals, while driving, while doing homework, or when you go to sleep?
  • How does social media affect your self-image?
  • How does social media affect feelings of depression, anxiety, or loneliness?
  • Have you ever been cyber-bullied?
  • Have you encountered racist, sexist, or homophobic content on social media?

After reading this article, we suggest you ask your teenager all these questions, yourself. Then compare the answers to the data we offer below, and refer to the survey itself to mine the data even further, if you’re interested and inclined to do so. This can be useful in two ways: first, you can confirm – experientially and anecdotally – the relative value of the survey. Meaning you can do a non-scientific, one-family study, for your own information, then determine the practical relevance of the Common Sense survey to your family. Second, you can find out where your teen fits in, with regards to the big picture: do they use social media more or less than the average teen? Do they place more or less emphasis on social media popularity than other kids? How does social media affect their social and emotional well-being?

Most parents want to know the answers to those questions, and more. While can’t answer them for your family, and neither can Common Sense Media, we can share the key data points presented in the study and discuss what we think they might mean for teens in the year 2018.

Social Media, Social Lives: A Teen’s Eye View

Before reading the data in the tables below, prepare for some surprises. The role social media plays in teens’ lives is complex. Teenagers are not a monolithic demographic: this may seem and obvious point to make, but it’s important to remember we’re talking about a group of people as diverse as the population of the United States. Teenagers are Black, Latin, Asian, and Euro. They come from low-income, middle-income, and high-income families. They’re LGBTQ and hetero. Teens live in cities of millions, rural towns of hundreds, and the suburbs and exurbs in between. Yet one thing that unites them in the 21st century is internet access, and therefore, access to social media. That’s a preview of something you’ll see later: social media can divide, but social media can also unite.

How?

We’ll discuss that after we have a look at the data.

Common Sense Facts and Figures

Teen Social Media Use: Key Data Sets

How much do teens use social media?

Frequency of Use20122018
Don’t Use17%19%
Multiple Times a Day34%70%
Multiple Times an Hourn/a38%
Almost Constantlyn/a16%

When reading the table above, consider this: the percentage of teens with smartphones increased from 41% in 2012 to 89% in 2018.

What social media sites do teens use most?

Site20122018
Facebook68%15%
Instagramn/a22%
Snapchatn/a41%

Note: One teen, when asked during a focus-group session who she still talked to on Facebook, replied “My grandparents.”

What’s your favorite way to communicate with friends?

Method20122018
Texting33%35%
In-person49%32%
Social Media7%16%
Video Chatting1%10%

Food for thought: Does the decline in preference for face-to-face communication mean teens will lack important interpersonal skills when they become adults?

How does social media use make you feel?

Emotion/QualityMoreLess
Popular21%3%
Confident20%5%
Self-Worth18%4%
Anxious8%12%
Depressed3%16%
Lonely3%25%

This table tosses out the first real curveball in the report. Most adults are convinced – based on articles they read (ironically, often first accessed by friend’s posts on Facebook) in the media – that social media platforms have a detrimental effect on teen’s mental health and self-esteem. But that’s not what teens say about themselves. Get ready: that was curveball number one. Curveball two awaits, two tables ahead.

Analyzing the Emotions

The responses in the table above scratch the surface with regards to how social media makes teens feel. The following table takes a step toward unpacking those emotions further, offering answers to specific questions about the intrapersonal dynamics of social media use for teenagers. In addition to responding to questions on the social media survey, teens completed a survey on their Social and Emotional Well-Being Status (SEWB). Researchers divided respondents into three categories: those with Low-SEWB (17%), Medium-SEWB (63%) and High-SEWB (20%). Then, they used these categories to understand how baseline levels of social and emotional well-being affect teens’ emotional and behavioral responses to various social media events and circumstances.

QuestionLow-SEWBHigh-SEWB
Have you felt left out or excluded on social media?70%29%
Have you deleted post because they didn’t get likes?43%13%
Do you feel bad when no one comments on posts?43%11%
Have you ever been cyberbullied?35%5%

When reading the table above, keep in mind this data is correlative, not causative. It’s impossible to determine, based on responses to surveys, what role social media plays in whether a teenager scores low or high on the SEWB scale. What’s important to note is that teens with low-SEWB scores are more likely to react negatively to events and circumstances while using social media than teens with high-SEWB scores. This means that teens who already contend with low self-esteem, sadness, and loneliness are more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the social media landscape. The things that can hurt on social media tend to hurt them more.

It stands to reason that for them, social media is not a fun place to be, on balance – but that’s not the case.

The Positive and the Negative

This is when the data get interesting – curveball two, as promised above. Though teens with low-SEWB scores disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of certain aspects of the social media environment, the table below – which includes responses only from teens with low-SEWB scores – indicates that more of those teens are likely to say social media is a positive rather than negative force in their lives. Also note that most of these teens report social media use has no real impact on their overall emotional state.

How does using social media make you feel?MoreLessNo Difference
Lonely13%39%47%
Depressed11%29%59%
Self-Worth22%15%62%

The most interesting aspect of this last data set is that for teens with low-SEWB scores, social media seems to help. Social media can make them feel less lonely, less depressed, and increase their feelings of self-esteem and self-worth. But it’s not that simple: this same set of teens reports social media use can make them feel excluded, feel bad when no one comments on or likes their posts, and can cause them to delete posts that don’t get favorable reactions.

So, which is it? Does social media help or hurt?

The answer is nuanced: it’s capable of both helping and hurting.

It’s Not About The Sites: It’s About The People

Before we conclude, we’ll show results from two questions we previewed earlier (we like to keep our promises):

  1. Do you see racist, sexist, or homophobic content on social media?

64% percent of teens say they see this type of content often or sometimes.

  1. Do you self-regulate your social media use? Do you turn off your device in social situations? During meals? Do you turn it off while driving? While doing homework? Do you turn it off when you go to sleep?

16% turn off devices most of the time in social situations. 42% turn off devices most of the time during meals. 44% say they never check devices while driving. 31% say they turn off devices most of the time while doing homework.

We’ll add a third tidbit to this final data roundup. When asked if the felt they were being manipulated by social media sites to spend more time on them, seventy two percent of teens responded in the affirmative. Teens know they’re being manipulated, yet they continue to use social media.

What does this say about them?

We think it means what we hinted at in the heading above. When talking about social media and teenagers, it’s best for us to focus on the teenagers themselves, rather than the social media platforms. Teens with low-SEWB scores can feel both better and worse while using social media. So rather than obsessing on the social media sites, let’s turn our attention to why these teens have low-SEWB scores in the first place.

Help Teens See Their Communication Habits

Teenagers know they pay attention to social media when they should be doing homework, spending quality time with family or friends, or driving. Let’s help teens unpack what causes them to make those choices. Teens show a preference for texting over face-to-face encounters. We can help them understand the importance of the types of communication that text can’t convey, such as the subtleties of tone, mood, and body language. Let’s remind them that though an emoji hug can give them a quick emotional boost, a real hug from a real friend in a real time of need is something that simply cannot be replaced.

Finally, let’s acknowledge that as adults, we tend to blame social media for many of the ills of the world. Especially where our teenage kids are concerned. It’s the 21st century equivalent of saying that’s not music about hip-hop or punk rock. It barely rises above the level of that crotchety old neighbor yelling you kids get off my lawn! Blaming social media is a mistake. When we point to technology as the source of our problems, we miss the point. Any problem with technology is, at its core, a human problem. Therefore, the solutions we find will always be human solutions. And in the case of social media, if a problem exists, the solution is not in demonizing social media. It’s in listening to, understanding, and supporting our kids.