Teens are tethered to technology like never before. Almost all have smartphones; many are online constantly. Those are topline findings from a new survey of American teens by the Pew Research Center. This news is no rocketing revelation to those who know and love “iGen,” the name coined by social psychologist Jean Twenge for the smartphone generation, born after 1995. The parent of iGen-ers, I wasn’t surprised by Pew’s findings. Yet culture is capricious: Trends show teens hurtling toward total tech immersion, but other signs show a backlash is building.
What do teens say? Ninety-five percent now own or have access to a smartphone. This marks a 22 percent increase since Pew’s last survey in 2015. Forty-five percent say they’re online “almost constantly,” compared to 24 percent in 2015. Online and social media platform preferences have changed: Facebook has fallen from favor; YouTube, Instagram, and Snapchat rule.
Though social media wields considerable influence, there’s little agreement about which way power skews. Forty-five percent of teens in Pew’s survey say social media’s impact is neither positive nor negative; 31 percent say it’s mostly positive, and 24 percent say it’s mostly negative. Teens like social media’s capacity to boost connections and foster information-sharing; they don’t like its role in bullying or spreading rumors.
Savvy teens, including one 16-year-old girl I interviewed, understand it promotes a curated alternate reality. “It’s like everyone putting out their best selves, their picture-perfect selves.”
Research and data are mixed. Social media can strengthen friendships and encourage advocacy. But heavy use is linked with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and lower-quality sleep. Girls are especially vulnerable to ill effects.
Educators and parents are conflicted about technology overall. Teachers generally support digital devices for learning — but 69 percent in a 2018 Gallup poll believe devices are “mostly harmful” to students’ mental health; 55 percent say they’re “mostly harmful” to students’ physical health. Parents feel beleaguered: 48 percent in a recent American Psychological Association stress survey say regulating their child’s screen time is “a constant battle.”
Fed up, some parents are bucking trends. The average age for a child’s first smartphone is 10, but a group of Texas moms has attracted national attention with a “Wait Until 8th” movement, encouraging parents to postpone a child’s smartphone acquisition until age 14, in eighth grade. At least 10 families from a child’s grade and school must sign on to activate pledges. Nationwide, nearly 10,000 parents have pledged to wait.
Self-aware teens are calling time-out — on themselves. Almost six in 10 have taken short breaks from social media, 65 percent of them voluntarily, according to a 2017 Associated Press survey. Why? It interfered with schoolwork or created drama. Some even take lengthy time-outs to reset and recalibrate. I reached out to another 16-year-old girl, who quit Snapchat for 18 months, to find out why. “I was starting to become way too focused on my appearance,” she says. “This actually started to affect my mood, as my self-confidence decreased dramatically.” She stepped away, she says, because “there are many more important issues in the world and … in my life that don’t involve my appearance.”
I’m almost done parenting my iGen-ers, now 16 and 21. We’ve had our technology challenges. One thing I’m glad I did: waiting beyond eighth. At the end of middle school, I started my kids with basic phones. (No fan, my daughter hid hers in public!) Following responsible use, they graduated to smartphones in high school. They’ve had plenty of time for Snaps and selfies. They’ve had time for other (better) things, too: sleep, homework, real connection. Life.
Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer with experience tracking education and public policy issues at the state and national level. She serves on the board of trustees for an independent private school in Durham.