Talking about Generation Z without talking about smartphones is impossible. The interconnectedness between teen and device has become the defining question about the generation following Millennials.
But a new Pew Research Center study suggests that the smartphone habits of those teens’ parents can be worrisome too.
Take the dinner table, the cliched scene where a parent tries to have a conversation with their cell phone-wielding teen, headphones in and distracted. Seventy-two percent of parents feel their teens are often or sometimes distracted by their phones while trying to have a conversation. But when Pew asked teens the same question about their parents, 51 percent of them said they believe their parents are either often or sometimes distracted by their phones during real-life conversations.
In some cases, teens might be a little bit better at managing their own distraction than their parents are. Fifteen percent of parents told Pew that they are often distracted at work because of their phones. Just 8 percent of teens said the same about themselves at school. And similar numbers of teens and parents (18 percent and 20 percent) report that they feel obligated to respond to messages from others immediately.
For a long time, the conversation about teens and their phones has focused almost exclusively on concerns about addiction. The Pew study does show that many teens have an intense relationship to their devices: 42 percent of teens said they felt “anxious” without their phones. But teens have also demonstrated with increasing frequency that their relationship to their phones is often neither wholly good or wholly bad.
For instance, the Parkland students responded to the massacre at their high school in February by using their phones to broadcast what was happening to the rest of the world and, in private group chats and messages, check in on each other. In the wake of the shooting, a group of students created a viral campaign that became a march against gun violence.
Pew surveyed 1,058 parents with at least one teen ages 13 to 17, and 743 teens. The margin of error for those samples was plus or minus 5.0 percentage points for the teens, and 4.5 percent for the parents.
The results also show some of the generational gaps you’d expect to see comparing these two groups’s attitudes toward their smartphone usage — although the gaps aren’t quite as big as you’d expect.
For instance, 54 percent teens, according to Pew, believe they spend too much time on their phones. Thirty-six percent of parents feel the same about themselves. Seventy-two percent of teens often, or sometimes, check their phone message right after waking up in the morning. Fifty-seven percent of parents do the same.
Meanwhile, 52 percent of teens have said that they’ve cut back on the time they spend on their phones — 57 percent say the same about social media, and 58 percent about video games.
But not all screen time management is self-imposed. Sixty-five percent of parents told Pew they are worried about their teens’ screen time, and 57 percent said they limit how much time, or when, their teens can access their phones or the Internet. Those restrictions were more common among parents of younger teens — ages 13 or 14 — than they were for those with teens aged 15 to 17.
In May, Pew released another study looking at teens’ relationship to connectivity, and found that 45 percent of teens say they’re online “almost constantly,” a percentage that has nearly doubled in just a few years.