Social Exchange: How Teens View Their Digital Lives

Daniel T. Allen |

According to a new report by Common Sense Media, one in three teens text, visit an online social network or use another form of social media on a daily basis. Social media was defined by the report as any network that allows teens to communicate with more than one person at a time. Image courtesy of Common Sense Media, "Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives," 2012.

Today’s teenagers are the first generation to have no memory of a world without Facebook, Twitter and text messaging.

The digital life of teens across the country is described in a new report from Common Sense Media, an organization that promotes digital literacy for parents and children. According to “Social Media, Social Life,” 90 percent of all American teens have used social media at least once, about 75 percent have a social networking site and one in three teens use social media several times a day or more.

Approximately 76 percent of 13- to 17 -year-olds surveyed said that they’ve used social media,  and 87 percent of 15 to 17-year-olds.

The report found no significant differences in social media use across racial or socio-economic lines, but did find that African-American teens are more likely to use sites other than Facebook, especially Twitter.

Click to view an infographic summarizing the findings from the report.

But according to a recent New York Times article entitled “Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era,” children who come from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to lack parental supervision over their Internet and social media habits. The Federal Communications Commission hopes to change this with the proposed creation of a “digital literacy corps” with a $200 million price tag, according to the Times article.

These revelations are made even more significant by the Common Sense Media report, which found that one in four teens on social media regularly encounter online hate speech targeting gender, sexual orientation, race or religion. Additionally, a small percentage of teens surveyed (about 5 percent) said that using social media makes them feel more depressed about their lives.


Common Sense Media Founder and CEO James Steyer is also the author of “Talking Back to Facebook,” a guide to help parents and their children navigate today’s online landscape. Video by Common Sense Media.

“Sure you have to worry about the more vulnerable kids,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media. “But keep in mind that this is a survey of teens’ own opinions… that doesn’t mean that psychologists or adults won’t have a different opinion of this data.” In general, Steyer said, teens are able to “see the pros and cons” on their own.

But what can concerned parents and other adults do to ensure that teens are interacting with social media in a healthy way? Steyer — the father of four children — said that in his family, age 15 or 16 is appropriate to begin using social media. He knows how to access his children’s online accounts and that he didn’t allow his teenage children to have a cell phone until they entered high school.

Steyer recommends three ways that adults can better supervise teens’ social media use:

1) Set clear time limits.

Two out of three teens own their own mobile device, according to the report, but that doesn’t mean that parents and teachers shouldn’t set clear limits about screen time. Steyer said that having conversations about the appropriate amount of time for using social media is important. He encourages parents to set limits for different platforms, text messaging or Facebook, for example.

2) Unplug.

Teens have never been more connected to social media, but many still express a desire to disconnect. The report found that teens favor face-to-face communication with their friends. Image courtesy of Common Sense Media, "Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives," 2012.

Many teens surveyed say they would like to disconnect from social media. Nearly half — 45 percent — say that they sometimes become frustrated with friends who text instead of pay attention to them and 21 percent wish their parents would spend less time using their mobile devices. “Parents and teachers need to be a good role models themselves and disconnect from their devices,” said Steyer, who recommends that families adopt “no tech times,” such as during meals. Steyer also said that teachers can establish “media- and tech-free zones” or engage their students in discussions about addiction to social media.

3) Do your homework.

Parents and teachers can do homework, too. “Parents and teachers need to understand the platforms and what goes on them because some material on social platforms is inappropriate,” said Steyer. It doesn’t mean that adults need to become “digital natives,” but they should at least be “digital tourists.”


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