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New Insights into Teen Screen Time


How much do you really know about teen attitudes toward their devices and the role social media plays in their lives? Pop culture often simplifies our perceptions of younger generations and the complex relationship they have with our networked world, but seldom do we see a deeper dive into the full range of issues. Fortunately, there are ongoing research projects designed to tackle questions of device attachment, distraction, habits, and mental health. In August 2018, the Pew Research Center published an extensive report in which parents and teens alike reveal their struggles, questions, and self-perceptions.

“How Teens and Parents Navigate Screen Time and Device Distractions” (PDF: full report; topline findings) is illuminating in that it undermines some of the pervasive myths about teen screen time, especially the stereotypical idea that teens are utterly comfortable with their relationship to technology. In fact, the report finds that “52% of U.S. teens report taking steps to cut back on their mobile phone use, and similar shares have tried to limit their use of social media (57%) or video games (58%).” While only 36% of parents say they spend too much time on their cellphone, that figure rises to 54% of teens.

Given the ubiquity of cell phone access (the report finds that 45% are online “on a near constant basis”), there’s good reason to take a closer look at how this access may be influencing the mental health and well-being of minors. Negative emotions dominate when it comes to time away from their device. From the report:

“The survey asked about five different emotions teens might feel when they do not have their cellphones, and “anxious” (mentioned by 42% of teens) is the one cited by the largest share. Around one-quarter say they feel lonely (25%) or upset (24%) in these instances. In total, 56% associate the absence of their cellphone with at least one of these negative emotions.”

This new report undoubtedly underscores the Pew Research Center’s previous look at the pros and cons of our online world, and how we need to be mindful of the impacts of a digital life.

New Tech to Balance Teen Screen Time

Growing public awareness of teen screen time has pushed companies like Google and Apple to roll-out tools designed to help parents manage how much time teens spend with their phones. Apple has announced new screen time controls, as has Google for the Android OS.

Walking the line between responsible parenting and “big brother helicopter parenting” is a fine line, however. Teens in particular need a greater degree of privacy and autonomy as they learn to make mature choices. In response to this need, Google recently announced an interesting update to their Family Link app. While the app allows parents to monitor their child’s Google Account, the teen upgrade allows teens to turn off supervision—but notifies parents when they do. Hopefully this will prompt conversations between parents and teens about boundaries, privacy, and what’s acceptable when it comes to online behavior.

Getting a Feel for the Real Teen Experience Online

For those who want to go beyond the research reports, there are relatively few places to experience what it’s really like to be a teen facing “always on” social tech and the privacy implications of modern media. Parents are hardly going to get a hands-on tutorial from their teens on the various nuances of communicating via the myriad of platforms available, so where can you turn?

VICE recently reported on a show which delivers an authentic view into the teen experience of social media. The show is called American Vandal, and from VICE’s perspective, it’s the “only show that knows how teens use social media” and “doesn’t poke fun at teens for being addicted to their phones.”

While research can reveal the broad strokes, there’s nothing quite like artistic expression to help us grasp the implications of our technology.

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