SALT LAKE CITY — The feeling that every teenager is on their phone is no exaggeration.
A new study recently released by Pew Research Center confirmed that fully 95 percent of teens ages 13 to 17 own their own smartphone or have access to one. But they experience mixed feelings about how that phone, particularly social media, is affecting them.
“I really enjoy it but I realize how much time is wasted on it,” 15-year-old Morgan Selleneit of Centerville told the Deseret News via an entirely texted interview. “There are a lot of bad things that you have to stay away from and avoid. Overall I feel like (social media) is pointless, but as usual I got sucked in.”
Almost half of teens say that social media is neither positive nor negative; 31 percent say it mostly benefits their lives while 24 percent mostly see the downsides.
The last time Pew reported on this topic was in April 2015, and in three years, things have definitely changed, said Monica Anderson, Pew research associate and lead author of the study, which surveyed 743 teens ages 13 to 17.
In 2015, 71 percent of teens were using Facebook. Today, that number has dropped to just over half of teens. Now, teens are opting to hang out on YouTube, Instagram (owned by Facebook) and Snapchat.
“Three years ago, Facebook was really the big dominant player," said Anderson. "And today … there’s been a pretty big shift in the social media landscape among teens."
Today, only 10 percent of teens say it's the platform they use most often, compared to the 35 percent who prefer Snapchat, and the 32 percent who prefer YouTube.
“In some ways I was glad to see the data finally catch up with what people have been talking about — that Facebook is no longer a central platform in the lives of adolescents,” said Amanda Lenhart, author of the 2015 Pew report on teens, and now the deputy director of the Better Life Lab at New America. “What we’re seeing now … is it’s not just that people don’t go there (often), it’s now younger teens aren’t even creating profiles.”
Selleneit has a Facebook account but hasn’t used it in at least five months — she calls it more of an "adult platform."
Instead, she spends around two hours daily on Instagram, watching funny vines to stave off boredom, and another hour on Pinterest where she pins ideas on travel hacks, outfit ideas and Instagram photo inspiration.
When she's with her friends, they'll play Fortnite or Minecraft on their phones, or jump on her trampoline. Selleneit bought her own iPhone 8 Plus at age 13 with money she earned working at Lagoon's Frightmares and mowing her grandpa's lawn.
When she can't hang out in person, there's always FaceTime, to talk with her friends in Kaysville and a cousin in Florida.
Pros of social media
In fact, 40 percent of teens see social media as a mostly positive thing because it allows them to connect with friends and family, according to the survey.
“Teens really value the connectivity that social media can provide,” said Anderson. “It’s often a place where teens tell us they build and maintain relationships.”
Having a smartphone is a major part of building those relationships. In 2015, 73 percent of teens reported having, or having access to, a smartphone, while 87 percent had access to a desktop or laptop computer.
Today, 95 percent of teens have a smartphone, and 88 percent have a desktop or laptop computer.
Ben Morey-Beale, just shy of 16, of Hopkinton, Mass., considers himself part of a gaming community, a vlog community, news community and review community — all made possible through the YouTube videos he watches for several hours a day on his iPhone8.
"YouTube creates so many communities and has a loyal fan base where you can find people that you share common interest with and watch videos that appeal to you," he said, also via text.
Often, YouTube isn't considered a social media platform, but in reality it's a "hugely important" space for adolescents, says Lenhart.
Not only can people communicate back and forth about videos through typed comments, but the videos themselves become interactive as people respond in video format, she said.
In the new Pew survey, 85 percent of teens reported using YouTube, yet YouTube wasn't even listed in Pew's 2014-2015 survey.
For Morey-Beale — who prefers, in order, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, iFunny then Facebook — social media gives him the chance to talk with his friends about current events and stay connected, even when they can't do it in person.
Of teens who told Pew they believe social media exerts a mostly positive effect, 16 percent said it was because social media made it easier to find news and information.
Yet Morey-Beale also knows that the same reasons he likes social media — connecting with new people — are the same reasons he needs to be cautious because, "you never know who you may meet and what horrible things you may be introduced to," he typed.
Downsides to social media
Sarah Kieffer, 16, of Eagle Mountain recently saw those "horrible things" first hand, as she watched her friend develop an eating disorder.
The friend had been following a lot of fitness accounts on Instagram, and the incessant stream of beautiful, toned and skinny bodies made her feel fat, so she stopped eating.
Only when Keiffer and her other friends pointed it out did the girl realize what she'd been doing.
At first, Kieffer's friend tried unfollowing the specific accounts, but stories and images would still pop up in her Instagram Explore page. Eventually, Keiffer said her friend decided it would “be best if she got rid of (Instagram) for a while.”
"With social media, we need to recognize the positive effects it has on teenagers, but also the negative effects and be more careful with how we use it," said Kieffer, who tries to be "very careful" about how she uses it and for how long.
"It's starting to become a danger and a huge problem (for) teenagers' self-worth," she finished.
A group of four 15-year-old friends from Bountiful Junior High all listed "jealousy" as a negative effect of social media — both through comparing pictures of each other's "perfect lives" and because they all know who everyone else is hanging out with, and can often feel left out.
The fact that 24 percent of teens told Pew they see social media as mostly negative means that one in four kids has had a bad experience online, said Catherine Steiner-Adair, clinical psychologist, school consultant and author of "The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age."
"The psychological impact of the hurtful and harmful experiences kids have on social networking sites are powerful," she said, adding that it may even be worse than face-to-face interactions.
Being called a nasty name on the playground is unpleasant, but it's over and done — it doesn't go viral, Steiner-Adair said. She said she's talked with kids who repeat what they've heard their parents say: "Things you post online will stay there forever," and are now constantly haunted by the fear that someone will always be looking at that embarrassing photo or comment someone posted of them.
"You can never let bygones be bygones," she said. "That's a horrible way to feel as a child."
Developing healthy habits
Yet social media use doesn't necessarily have to be a negative experience, explains Ana Homayoun, educational consultant, speaker and author of "Social Media Wellness: Helping Tweens and Teens Thrive in an Unbalanced Digital World."
After one of her presentations, Homayoun said she heard from a teenager who confessed that all last year, while her parents thought she'd been doing homework in her room, she'd really been on ASKfm, an anonymous question-asking app.
The girl told Homayoun she was getting so stressed out that it was hard to sleep, but after hearing the presentation, realized she had a choice and decided to delete the app.
It may sound simple, but Homayoun continually reminds teens they have a choice: choose what's energizing and avoid what's draining. It's OK to unfollow someone, unfriend them or simply delete an app entirely.
"Think about your daily goals and if your (social media) habits are moving you toward those goals or away from your goals," she said during a presentation to parents and community members in Park City last month.
She calls this healthy socialization — the first of three "Ss" that she uses to teach parents and teens about healthy online habits and decisions.
Second is effective self-regulation with media — something kids want, but struggle to do, she said.
She's had parents in her office worried about their child's time-consuming homework loads, yet when she talks to their teens about their routine they'll mention doing homework with the phone by their side.
When the phone dings, they respond, then wait for a response, then maybe look at a math question, then go back to texting or snapping. After 30 minutes of "homework," teens feel they've invested significant time when they've really only spent five minutes on actual math.
She encourages apps that help teens become "aware of the time they spend on phones without judgment," she says.
There are productivity apps like Moment, which monitors the time spent on each app or platform, or "Forest" where staying off the phone for a certain amount of time plants a digital tree. Dive back in before the timer is up and the tree dies. Stay committed and grow an entire forest.6 comments on this story
Finally, she encourages teens and parents to talk about safety — not just physical safety but social and emotional safety. This includes privacy settings and password issues, and also helping teens identify a network of peers and adults they can turn to when something goes wrong online.
When things do go wrong, Homayoun reminds parents to have the "Botox brow." No matter what a teen says, remain calm, she says, so that conversations will continue in the future. No eye rolls, panicked faces, or immediate judgment.
"Be calm and approachable," adds Steiner-Adair. "Everybody messes up, but your leverage with your kids is your relationship with them — not controlling them."