Emily Rose Ross, 15, author of "Blue's Prophecy," poses with her dog, Balta, in East Cobb, Georgia. Emily uses social media to help promote her book and connect with fans. Photo by Billy Howard.
Billy Howard

SALT LAKE CITY — Social media may not be ruining your kid after all, although teens who struggle offline may struggle more online, according to a new survey of teens and technology released Monday.

The survey by Common Sense Media, an independent nonprofit organization focused on teens and technology, presents a nuanced picture about teens' thoughts and responses to social media — one that acknowledges the pros and cons, especially for the most vulnerable kids — but one that's still rosier than most parents envision.

"Overall, the news is really positive," said Sierra Filucci, executive editor of parenting content for Common Sense Media. "Despite the increase in the amount of social media that kids are using, there's not an increase in negative experiences. They're using it more and they're doing fine. I think it can put the brakes on some of our parental worries a little bit."

Diane Lore
Emily Rose Ross, center in gray shirt, author of "Blue's Prophecy," speaks at the Dodgen Middle School Young Authors' Club in April. The visit was arranged by one of her superfans who found Emily and her book through social media. Photo by Diane Lore.

In fact, 21 percent of teens felt more popular, 20 percent more confident and 18 percent felt better about themselves after using social media, while the percent of teens who reported feeling less popular, less confident or worse about themselves didn't rise above 5 percent for any category. The remainder of teens said social media had no impact on their feelings. The survey asked about frequency of use, not total time spent online.

"I really loved that it wasn't all dire," said Janell Burley Hofmann, an educational consultant and speaker on digital well-being who has talked with thousands of teens across the country. "There was space for positive response from young people, which I think is omitted from … the narrative when adults talk about young people using technology."

The power of social media

Emily Rose Ross has been on social media since fifth grade, when she and her friends got into Pokémon GO, but lately, she's been capitalizing on social media connections to spread the word about her book.

Published when she was 13, "Blue's Prophecy" is a sci-fi/fantasy tale about genetically altered dogs and their conflicting missions, and the book's Facebook page has more than 1,600 followers.

Seeing "likes" come in from Paris was cool, but even better was meeting Sophie, a "super fan" who lived just a few miles away from Emily in East Cobb, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. Sophie had devoured the book, liked all of Emily's Facebook posts and even arranged to have Emily come speak at her school's club for fledgling writers.

"It was social media that did all that," said Emily, now 15. "As long as you're not posting horrible, horrible things, it's usually a positive thing to be on social media."

In 2012, when Common Sense Media asked teens about how often they use social media, 34 percent said more than once a day. By 2018, it had risen to 70 percent of teens. Sixteen percent of teens say they're on it almost constantly.

And they're most often on Snapchat, as teens reaffirmed that Facebook is no longer their platform of choice, dropping from 68 percent of teens who use it most in 2012 to 15 percent of teens in 2018.

Emily agreed that Facebook "feels too old," and though she maintains her book page, spends more time on Instagram and YouTube where she also posts videos about her art, animation and painting — like the recent portrait of Frankenstein's monster.

She knows social media's the place to get advice on how to improve her shading or color balance, but she's well aware that if she's looking for constructive criticism of a sketch, there's plenty of that too — and not always so constructive.

"It's not perfect at all," Emily says of social media, noting that when she wants to talk with friends in real life and they're distracted by their phones, it "just gets awkward (and) annoying."

According to the survey, only 16 percent of teens say they put their phone away when they're hanging out with friends. More than half say they hardly ever or never silence it or put it away when with friends.

And more than half of teens say social media distracts them from paying attention to the people they're with.

Because of that, there's no longer the expected "non-stop chatter" when girls are together, says Emily's mom, Diane Lore.

"They all huddle together sharing memes and that's their form of communication," she says. "They don't seem to be really as engaged (with) the social skills, like face-to-face (communication) like I'd expect, because they're always on their phones."

In 2012, 49 percent of teens told Common Sense Media they preferred to talk in person, but by 2018, it had dropped to 32 percent.

Vulnerable teens

Adults are almost hard-wired to worry about how kids are spending their time — previous generations of parents worried about comic books, rock 'n' roll and the television, says Candice Odgers, a professor of psychological science at the University of California Irvine.

For several years now, society has blamed smartphones for the many challenges facing youth, from mental health struggles like anxiety and depression, to a lack of social skills, resilience and even getting enough sleep.

Aaron Thorup, Common Sense Media, “Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences.” 2018. Number responded = 1,141

Yes, many kids are struggling, Odgers says, and yes, the phone may be playing a role, but it's a "big mistake to look at these associations and (say) the phones are causing the mental health problems and leave it at that."

In scientific terms, just because there's correlation, or a relationship between the behaviors, doesn't mean there's causation, or that one predicts another.

Despite concerns to the contrary, Common Sense Media's survey found no causal relationship between the frequency of social media use and negative social-emotional health; the difference in social-emotional wellness between heavy, moderate and light users was negligible, according to the report.

However, teens who scored lower on a social-emotional well-being scale reported more intense feelings about social media than their peers.

"'Is social media bad or good for kids’ mental health?' This is one of the most common questions that parents and educators ask the child psychologists and psychiatrists at the Child Mind Institute," wrote Child Mind Institute president Harold S. Koplewicz in the report's introduction. "The honest answers are 'both' and 'it depends on the child.' "

For resilient kids, social media can help them form friendships, connect with others, learn new skills and express themselves creatively.

Yet for vulnerable teens — those with mental or physical health challenges, family turmoil, adverse childhood experiences or family financial strain, among others — social media plays a "heightened role — both positive and negative" in their lives, according to the report.

Among the 1,141 teens surveyed, 17 percent of teens fell into the category of low social-emotional well-being, determined by them agreeing with phrases like, "I often feel rejected by people my age," "I get into trouble a lot," "I often feel sad or depressed," and disagreeing with sentences such as, "I like myself," "I have lots of friends," "There are lots of things I can do well."

These vulnerable teens were more likely to say social media is extremely or very important in their lives, more likely to feel excluded on social media, more likely to have been cyberbullied and more likely to delete social media posts if they get too few "likes."

They're also more likely to say they're less depressed, more confident, less lonely and both more and less anxious than their peers in the high social-emotional well-being group.

While those results may sound contradictory, they're really not, experts say.

"If you think about it, any social interaction can cause feelings of elation, inclusion, satisfaction or rejection and isolation," wrote Jenny Radesky, an assistant professor of developmental behavioral pediatrics at the University of Michigan in an e-mail to the Deseret News. Social media may amplify those dynamics because there are no face-to-face clues to help teens resolve conflict, she said.

The power of social media to both increase and decrease anxiety can be seen in the experiences of a teen on the margins — perhaps someone on the autism spectrum or someone who identifies as LGBTQ who has been bullied online, yet also found a group of friends online who understand them, said Filucci, and helped remind them "that they’re not alone."

Hang in there

Hoffman remembers finishing a parent workshop and being approached by a mother who looked exhausted.

"I thought you were going to tell me something easy," the woman said. "Really, what you said is this is just like parenting — it's going to take effort and action and mistakes and hard work."

Aaron Thorup, Common Sense Media, “Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences.” 2018. Number responded = 1,141

That's true, but Hoffman reassured the woman that parenting in the era of smart technology doesn't require expertise in video games or social media platforms — just a willingness to talk openly with their kids and practice parenting skills that have been used for generations.

If a teen's bedtime is 11, but they've snuck their phone into bed and are using it late into the night, that's not a phone issue, Hoffman says, that's a sneaking and lying issue and "we know how to parent that," she said.

Parents can also check in with their teens about social media, just like they check in with anything else in their life, and help their teens learn to recognize their own "social or emotional vulnerabilities," says Radesky.

"If a teen knows that they tend to have big emotional reactions and strong opinions, they might want to learn how to pause and self-regulate before impulsively posting in reaction to their feelings," she wrote.

Or if teens tend to dive into their phones when stressed, parents can help teens recognize that and work to develop other coping mechanisms that address the root causes of stress, she said.

Today's teens are also becoming savvier to the pull that tech companies are trying to exert on them — 72 percent of teens believe that "tech companies manipulate users to spend more time on their devices," according to the report.

And because parents aren't immune from companies' "persuasive design" either, experts say it's important for parents to acknowledge their own tech habits, and for families to work together to set boundaries, not default to top-down parental mandates.

Teens also want their parents to acknowledge there are good things about tech — even if it's different than how they grew up, says Hoffman.

"Different isn't bad," she says, "it's just new."