Social Media, Social Life: How Teens View Their Digital Lives

When I think about the fact that today's teens are the first generation to go through their entire lives with social networking sites at their fingertips, I can't help but question the impact of it all.
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When I think about the fact that today's teens are the first generation to go through their entire lives with social networking sites at their fingertips, I can't help but question the impact of it all. How is the immediacy of social media and mobile technology shaping their interpersonal relationships? Will teens ever know what life was like without "checking in" everywhere they go, with popularity based on likes and retweets? How is my kids' sense of body image being developed, questioned and represented online? And, most importantly, what can I do as their dad to set the best possible example and help them maximize the tremendous opportunities that social media presents?

Until this week, when Common Sense Media released "Social Media, Social Life," a research study to try to understand how teens view their own digital lives, none of us had answers to these questions.

When I wrote Talking Back to Facebook (Simon & Schuster, Scribner, May 2012), I shared concerns and questions that were deeply rooted in my personal experience as a parent and educator. I wrote about relationships, intimacy, addiction and the loss of innocence that living a digital life can present. I emphasized the vital need for downtime from our devices, digital "rules of the road" for kids and scientific research to identify the impact of technology on our brains and psyches.

In an attempt to complement existing research and continue to measure this impact, Common Sense Media released "Social Media, Social Life," a nationally representative, quantitative snapshot of how American teens experience the role of social media in their social and emotional lives.

The research tells us so much. The bottom line is this: Our kids are all right, but -- and there's always a but -- that doesn't mean there's nothing to worry about. Despite what we know today, we are years away from assessing the true impact of it all, and our concerns remain particularly valid.

Social media is an amplifier and a reflection of real life. It's the place where kids are becoming adults. Gender differences, hate speech, homophobia and racism are all a part of teens' lives. What's different in the digital world, however, is the anonymity factor and the impulsive nature of mobile and online communications. Social media has the potential to exacerbate age-old anxieties and rites of passage in ways that yesterday's communications media did not. As my colleague Kelly Schryver wrote in her 2011 honors thesis for Brown University, "Today's girls -- for the first time -- are growing up with mirrors that talk back to them." The research proves it. As many as 44% of teens encounter racist, homophobic, or sexist content online.

Social media is not gender neutral. More teen girls than teen boys text, tweet and post photos online. Our study concludes that among the 75% of 13- to 17-year-olds who currently have a profile on a social networking site, girls are much more likely than boys to feel left out after seeing photos of others, to worry about people posting ugly photos of them, to get stressed about how they look in photos they post, to edit their photos before posting and to feel bad if they don't get a lot of "likes" for photos. As parents and educators, we need to place these issues firmly out in the open. We must begin the necessary dialogue to educate our kids and ourselves about how to deal with these pressures in the increasingly public world of social media. We need to help tomorrow's young women resist the urge to conflate self-worth, friendship and physical attraction.

Our kids are watching us. Perhaps one of the most startling findings is that, despite our concerns, our teens did not report great tumult in their lives caused by social media. Eight out of 10 teens express an overall sense of happiness with their lives, feel self-confident and get along well with their parents. But for all their love of new media, a substantial number of teens express an occasional desire to unplug or go back to a day when there was no Facebook. The pressure of constant texting, posting and sharing presents an almost adult-like weariness expressed by many teens. More than 25% of teens are frustrated by how attached their friends and parents are to their devices, calling us "addicted" to our gadgets and wishing we would spend less time with our devices. Our kids are following our example, and there's something very serious at play here. We all know that this constant connectedness can be associated with increased feelings of anxiety and the stress of always being "on call." It's crucial that we model a balanced approach and take regular time-outs from technology, because we adults aren't the only ones expressing hints of Facebook fatigue.

This extensive report reads as a primer for us as parents and educators to teens and tweens -- to help us understand how our kids are engaging with technology and to highlight any impact that it's having on their social and emotional well-being. For all the difficult stories I've heard about teens' lives being turned upside down by something negative that happened online, I am comforted to know that a majority of teens say social media has had a positive impact on their relationships with friends and family. But the work doesn't stop there. Our own voices and wisdom must continue to be a critical part of this conversation. We must continue to research, explore and question the impact of our ever-growing digital lives and be central to the development of a national debate about what's appropriate and healthy for our kids and families.

A full discussion of the methodology behind the research and a copy of Social Media, Social Life can be found here. Highlights from the study can be found in this infographic.

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