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Social Media and Teens: What Do We Know?

At the end of this month I’ll be presenting to a group of K-8 parents on social media and the pitfalls/importance of it in the lives of teens. My goal was to provide the facts, not an interpretation, and then ask the parents to reflect on what this information means for them or their children so as not to “recommend” a prescribed treatment. Although I am coming in as an “expert” coaching someone to reflect for themselves is much better that telling them what their conclusions should be, and so I had to find facts. For that, I had to do a lot of dense research, but the things I found were valuable enough that I felt it would make a good post.

Now before you read this, know that it is in no way a “complete” picture. There are lots of other articles, sources, and experts whose work I read but for the sake of time and narrative I did not include. However I know that the path to hell is paved with good intensions, so take this report with a grain of salt.

What We Know:

Mobile devices are replacing traditional desktops as the primary way teens access the internet. Nearly 90% of teens have access to a smart device while only 54% use a desktop, meaning that their browsing can be done more privately.

The most popular social media platforms for the 13-17 crow are Snapchat and Instagram (3 out of 4 teens are on one or both, which is up nearly 25% since 2014) while Facebook skews to an older demographic (only 66% of teens currently use it, down 10% from 2014) Social media use among teens isn’t just limited to those two platforms either. If we look at use through the lense of gender, girls prefer visually-oriented social media platforms like Pinterist or Tumblr, while boys tend to dominate game-based social media (like Microsoft’s Mixer)

YouTube is by far the most ubiquitous platform with 96% of teens saying they access it. Teens aren’t just consumers of media either. Nearly half post their own “live streams” which allow in the moment communication with people from around the world.

We also know that a quarter of teens would describe their social media habits as “constant” meaning multiple times within the same day. The older a teen is, the more likely they are to be on social media.

Teen communication is predominately done through social media. A teen will text someone three times more than they will engage in face-to-face communication. This is significant because only 7% of communication meaning is derived from words.

One big concern that comes along with technology aside from the effects of prolonged screen time is multitasking and concentration. When using an internet-ready device, there are sharp declines in academic performance, short-term “working” memory recall, and higher rates of impulsivity. Concentrating for extended periods of time and the effectiveness of such focus rapidly declines.

Social media is also a growing force in the lives of college-bound students, and not just socially. 35% of colleges say they search applicants on the internet as part of their admissions process. Employers are even more through, with more than half saying they are less likely to interview a candidate with no social media presence and with 75% using social media to screen and monitor their workforce. Another study found that when using a device, students only spend 65% of their time working on schoolwork, with a trend towards more time leading to greater ineffectiveness.

Despite these negative trends, there are many reasons to encourage teens to use social media and access the internet on mobile devices. There is a strong correlation between internet usage and success, whether it is academic, financial, or social. In short, the more you access the internet, the better off you are.

Part of the reason this trend will continue is the shifting nature of work. Over 87% of workers polled believe that they will need new training and skills to be prepared for the next generation of jobs, and most of this training will come from online platforms. We also see growth in “gig” jobs or jobs that require mobile communication or remote work. These jobs also carry the highest average salaries, meaning that those who are more adapt at online communication will be better placed to score higher paying careers.

Social media savy will also help teens pad their resumes. Of the 7.4 bullion people on earth, half have a social media account. Companies that have people who understand how to communicate effectively with these people have a market penetration of 50% globally. And this number is only rising, with social media accounts growing at a rate of 21% annually.

And although concerns about screen time, focus, and behavior are all valid, we know that social medias effect on the brain isn’t all negative. It also allows for greater mental agility, making users more responsive to new stimuli.

Studies and research institutions consulted for this post;

NORC Center for Public Affairs - 2016

Pew Research Center – 2014

Harris Poll/ – 2015

MIT/Univ. of Toronto/U.S. Army – 2016

CSU Dominguez Hills – 2013

Bureau of Labor Statistics – 2015/16

Harvard– 2012

WEF - 2016

UCLA – 2016

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