The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forty-five percent of teens are online ‘almost constantly’ — and they don’t know if it’s good for them

Forty-five percent of teenagers say they are online “almost constantly,” according to a new Pew Research Center study on teens and social media use. That percentage has nearly doubled in just a few years: In a 2014-2015 Pew survey, 24 percent of teens said the same.

Pew’s survey, released Thursday, asked American teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17 about their social media use.

“One of the questions we wanted to examine was how teens evaluate the impact of social media on their lives,” said Monica Anderson, a Pew research associate and the lead author of the study. After conducting the survey, she said, Pew found that “there’s not really a strong consensus” on what that effect is.

In all, 89 percent of teens surveyed in 2018 said they were either online “almost constantly” or “several times a day,” with 11 percent telling Pew they were online once a day or less.

That rise in the “almost constantly” category is probably linked to “a pretty big jump” in teens who have access to smartphones, Anderson said. Ninety-five percent of teens have access to a smartphone in 2018. Three years ago, Pew reported that 73 percent of teens said the same.

And at this point, smartphone ownership seems pretty universal even across different races and classes. Access is a little different when it comes to computers, where a higher household income does seem to indicate a higher likelihood of having access to a computer at home.

The results get even more interesting when you look at the responses when Pew asked whether social media has had a mostly positive (31 percent), neither positive nor negative (45 percent), or mostly negative (24 percent) effect on people their age.

Adults tend to talk about the negatives of teen social media use in terms of addiction. And, Anderson noted, one of the key themes in their study was the idea that teens “felt that social media caused distraction.”

But that wasn’t the dominant response. Instead, more teens worried about social media’s role in bullying and hurting relationships.

Twenty-seven percent of those who said social media had a negative effect cited bullying. One 15-year-old boy said that “people can say whatever they want with anonymity.” A 14-year-old girl said that “teens are killing people all because of things they see on social media or because of the things that happened on social media.”

The second most popular reason, among those who believed social media had a mostly negative effect on their age group, was harming relationships in general. One 15-year-old girl, for instance, said that social media provide a “fake image of someone’s life.”

Others spoke of social media’s potential for good.

“Social media can make people my age feel less lonely or alone,” one 15-year-old girl told Pew. Another said that social media gave “kids my age an outlet to express their opinions, emotions and connect with people who feel the same way.” Another said, “We are more likely to ask for help through social media, which can save people.”

A 17-year-old boy simply replied, “because a lot of things created or made can spread joy.”

The survey comes right after what is probably the most visible example of how teens use social media: the viral response to the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Fla. As the shooting was happening, students huddled in the back of classrooms used group chats to connect with friends and relatives, and Snapchat and Twitter to broadcast their experiences to the world. Just hours after surviving a massacre, a group of those students began a viral campaign to promote gun control restrictions, and used social media to organize a march on Washington.

The moment captured the best and worst of the Internet at once: its power to bring people together, and its potential to amplify harm. As their profiles rose, so did the volume of the conspiracy theorists and bad actors attacking them. It is possible that teens cannot agree on whether social media are good or bad for them, because, at different moments, they can be both.

There were a few other notable findings in Pew’s study:

When teens are online, they’re probably on YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat, each of which were regularly used by large majorities of the American 13-to-17-year-olds surveyed. Facebook use, meanwhile, has dropped overall in the three years since Pew last surveyed teens about their social media use. In 2014-2015, 71 percent said they used Facebook. Now that’s 51 percent.

Teen Internet use has differences across race and gender. Fifty percent of teen girls say they are online almost constantly, compared with 39 percent of boys. Fifty-four percent of Hispanic teens said they were using the Internet nearly all the time, while 41 percent of white teenagers said the same.

A large majority of teens — both boys and girls — play video games. Eighty-four percent of teens say they have access to a gaming console. And 83 percent of girls said they play some sort of video game (on a computer, phone, or console). Meanwhile, 97 percent of boys said the same. Pew also found substantial growth in console ownership among Hispanic teens (a 10 percent jump in three years). Plus, eighty-five percent of teens from households with an income of less than $30,000 a year say they own a game console, while in 2014-2015 it was 67 percent.

More reading: 

The murky facts of the ‘deodorant challenge’ — and other viral teen ‘crazes’

This kid went to the mall to get sprinkles. He ended up with 90,000 new YouTube fans.

This is what it’s like to grow up in the age of likes, lols and longing