Think back to your teenage years. How did you normally communicate? Back in the Dark Ages when I was a teenager, I communicated with my peers face-to-face, by telephone, passing the occasional note in class, and reluctantly, by writing a letter. How do today's teenagers communicate in the digital age? One difference, of course, is that today's "private" communication exchanges can often be seen by the whole world, allowing the chance to comment on the exchange, and creating a permanent record of the exchange.
A recent survey, Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives, a Summer 2012 Common Sense Media Research Study attempts "to complement existing research with a broad, quantitative snapshot of how U.S. teens experience the role of social media in their social and emotional lives." The survey results are summarized below.
Not surprisingly, the survey found that almost all teenagers in this country have used social media.
Nine out of 10 13- to 17-year-olds have used some form of social media. Three out of four teenagers currently have a profile on a social networking site, and one in five has a current Twitter account (27 percent have never used Twitter). Facebook dominates social networking use among teens: 68 percent of all teens say Facebook is their main social networking site, compared to 6 percent for Twitter, 1 percent for GooglePlus, and 1 percent for MySpace and 25 percent do not have a social networking site.
For the vast majority of teens, social and other digital communications media are a daily part of life. Two-thirds of teens text every day, half visit social networking sites daily, and 11 percent send or receive tweets at least once every day. In fact, more than a third of teens visit their main social networking site several times a day. One in four teens is a “heavy” social media user, meaning they use at least two different types of social media each and every day.
Many more teens report social media use positively on their emotional well-being than a negative one.
Most teens do not think their use of social media affects their social and emotional well-being one way or the other. But there are some teens who think that using social media does affect how they feel about themselves and their social situation.
More than one in four teens say that using their social networking site makes them feel less shy and more outgoing; one in five says it makes them feel more confident, more popular, and more sympathetic to others; and 15 percent say it makes them feel better about themselves. By comparison, only 5 percent say social networking makes them feel less outgoing; 4 percent feel worse about themselves, less confident, and less popular after using their social networking site; and 3 percent feel shyer.
Very few teens think that using their social network site makes them more depressed. Among all teen social network users, only 5 percent say using their social networking site makes them feel more depressed, compared to 10 percent who say it makes them feel less depressed. Even among the least happy teens in the study (the 10 percent of all teens who say they are often sad or depressed and aren't very happy with their lives), 18 percent say using their social networking site makes them feel more depressed, while 13 percent say it lessens their depression.
In particular, teens think that using social media has helped their relationships. Half of all teen social media users say using such media has mainly helped their relationships with friends, compared to just 4 percent who say social media use has mainly hurt their relationships. Similarly, more than a third say social media use has mainly helped their relationships with family members, compared to 2 percent who say it has mainly hurt them. In addition, a majority of teens say social media help them keep in touch with friends they can't see regularly, get to know other students at their school better, and connect with new people who share a common interest.
Despite being avid social media users, talking to each other in person is still teens' favorite way to communicate.
About half of all teens say their favorite way to communicate with their friends is in person. Texting is the next favorite, with social networking, talking on the phone , and Twitter far behind.
The main reasons kids prefer face-to-face conversations are that they're more fun and that they can understand what people really mean better in person. The main reasons some kids prefer texting is that it's quick and easy; others say it gives them more time to think about how to respond or is more private.
Some teens think there is a trade-off between social media use and face-to-face communication. A third of teens agree either strongly or somewhat that using social media takes away from time they could be spending with people face-to-face, and 44 percent agree at least "somewhat" that using social media often distracts them from the people they're with when they do get together in person.
Social media use does affect how some teens interact with one another. Nearly a third of social media users say they've flirted with someone online that they wouldn't have flirted with in person, and 25 percent say they've said something bad about someone online that they wouldn't have said in person.
Many teens recognize that they and their friends and family are increasingly tethered to their electronic gadgets, and a substantial number express a desire to disconnect sometimes.
Among teens who own cell phones, 41 percent answered "yes" when asked whether they would describe themselves as "addicted" to their phones (no definition of addiction was offered). Forty-three percent of teens agree strongly or somewhat that they sometimes wish they could "unplug," and more than a third agree at least "somewhat" that they sometimes wish they could go back to a time when there was no Facebook. As one teen commented, "Sometimes it's nice to just sit back and relax with no way possible to communicate with anyone."
The teens who are most interested in "unplugging" or going back to a time before Facebook are the ones who either are not using social networking themselves or have had bad experiences online. For example, 25 percent of teens who are not currently using a social networking site strongly agree that they sometimes wish they could go back to a time when there was no Facebook, and a total of 54 percent agree at least somewhat with that statement. By comparison, among teens who are currently using a social networking site, just 8 percent strongly agree, and a total of 31 percent agree at least somewhat. In addition, a third of teens who most want to unplug or go back to a time when there was no Facebook say they "often" encounter racist, sexist, or homophobic content in social media (compared to 8-13 percent among other social media users). These negative experiences may be fueling the desire to unplug.
Some teens get frustrated by how attached their friends and parents are to their own devices. For example, 28 percent of those whose parents have a mobile device say they consider their parents "addicted" to their gadgets, and 21 percent of all teens say they wish their parents spent less time with their cell phones and other devices. Nearly half of teens say they sometimes get frustrated with their friends for texting, surfing the Internet, or checking their social networking sites while they're hanging out together.
A Summing Up
Some have suggested that social media is making users more lonely. For example, an article in the Atlantic monthly, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely? , takes this view. This survey disputes that view. Here the survey directly talked with teens about their impressions rather than extrapolating from other data to reach conclusions. The teens in the survey report that they feel social media makes them less depressed, less shy, more confident and generally feel that it contributes to their overall emotional and social well-being. And yet, with all the social media use, they still prefer face-to-face communication.