By Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News
Listen to Larry Magid’s CBS News Radio interview with the study’s lead author, Monica Anderson
A new survey from Pew Research found that Snapchat is now the social media app that teens use most often, followed closely by YouTube. A slight majority (51 percent) still uses Facebook, but that’s down from 71 percent compared with Pew’s 2014-2015 survey. That’s probably no surprise but what I find amazing is that nearly half (45 percent) of teens say they are online “almost constantly.” When you add in the 24 percent that say they go online “several times a day,” the survey reveals that 89 percent are heavy users. Girls are more likely (50 percent) to be online constantly compared with boys (39 percent) and the report said “Hispanic teens are more likely than whites to report using the internet almost constantly (54 percent vs. 41 percent).
The report, Teens, Social Media & Technology 2018 is based on a nationally representative sample of 1,058 parents and 743 teens.
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, is growing among teens. It’s now used by 72 percent, up from 52 percent in 2015. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) of teens use Snapchat, up from 41 percent in 2015.
But the more interesting statistics aren’t so much the number of users of each service but the number of teens who use them most often. Facebook was once the dominant platform for young Americans, but that honor now goes to Snapchat, which 35 percent of teens say they use most often. It’s followed by YouTube, which is the most commonly used app by 32 percent of teens followed by Instagram (15 percent) with Facebook at 10 percent and Twitter a distant 3 percent.
Although many teens post content to YouTube, most just use it to consume videos while other platforms are used by people who frequently post as well as consume content.
What I find interesting about these numbers is that the two most popular interactive services — Snapchat and Instagram — are different from Facebook in three important ways.
First, they are based around pictures and videos rather than words. Sure, you add text to your Snapchat and Instagram posts but the text is essentially a photo caption or an adjunct to a video.
The second is that users post to these apps almost exclusively from smartphones while Facebook can be fully accessed from either computer or a phone.
Finally, Snapchat and Instagram are more ephemeral than Facebook. Snapchat posts, by default, disappear shortly after they’re viewed, and an increasing number of Instagram users are taking advantage of its optional-stories posts which disappear after 24 hours. Although Facebook posts can be deleted, the default is for them to stay around forever.
Teens know that college admission officers, potential employers and even would-be romantic partners often check people out on Facebook, so it tends to feel more like adding to a permanent record than an in-the-moment way of participating in a conversation that is much less likely to stick around to haunt them.
Nearly all teens have smartphones
Another big reveal is that smartphone use among American teens is nearly ubiquitous, with 95 percent reporting they have or have access to a smartphone. That compares with 88 percent who say they have access to a computer at home. Unlike smartphone penetration, which is nearly universal, computer access correlates with income with 96 percent of teens from households with incomes of $75,000 or more a year having access to PCs compared with 75 percent of those in households with incomes below $30,000.
I don’t think this is just about affordability. You can purchase a low-end laptop for less than the cost of most smartphones and, unlike smartphones, you don’t need an expensive cellular plan to use them. Getting access to the internet only via smartphone has an impact on how it’s used, according to the 2016 report, Digital Equity: Technology and Learning in the Lives of Lower-Income Families. “Low- and moderate-income parents who only have Internet access via mobile phones are less likely to shop online (36% vs. 66% of those with home access), use online banking or bill-paying (49% vs 74%), apply for jobs or services online (42% vs. 56%), or follow local news online (70% vs. 82%). The same is true for their children, who are significantly less likely to look up information online about things they are interested in (35% vs. 52% with home access), or to use the internet daily (31% to 51%).”
The survey also found that most kids are gamers. According to the report, “84 percent of teens say they have access to a game console at home and 90% say they play video games of any kind,” whether on a computer, a phone or a console. Games are popular with both boys and girls, although 92 percent of boys have a console at home compared with 75 percent of girls. Income isn’t much of a barrier when it comes to games with 85 percent of teens with households earning less than $30,000 a year having access to a console at home.
Mixed impact on lives
The report points out that “teens have mixed views on the impact of social media on their lives.” Just under a third (31 percent) of teens say that social media has a mostly positive impact on their lives while nearly a fourth (24 percent) say its effect is mostly negative.
A bit under half (45 percent) say it has neither a positive nor negative impact. When asked to explain their views, a 14 year-old girl said, “I think social media has a positive effect because it lets you talk to family members far away.”
A 15-year-old girl said that she feels “social media can make people my age feel less lonely or alone. It creates a space where you can interact with people.”
Another 15-year-old girl said “It has given many kids my age an outlet to express their opinions and emotions, and connect with people who feel the same way.”
Yet, there were those who expressed negative thoughts such as a 13 year-old boy who commented, that it “gives people a bigger audience to speak and teach hate and belittle each other,” and a 15-year-old boy who said “People can say whatever they want with anonymity, and I think that has a negative impact.”
While almost all teens are users of connected technology, what this survey shows is that there is variance in both the types of social media they use and their attitudes toward it. As with all demographic groups, one size does not fit all, and not all teens speak with one voice when it comes to how social media is affecting them.
Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Snapchat and other tech companies.