Stereotypes of young people are hard to shake. Every ensuing generation seems to pepper their juniors with breathy judgment. For the past decade, the youthful use of social media has invited shrill suspicion. Jabs against supposed social and personal corrosion have developed into an almost unshakeable trope.


New empirical research conducted by Common Sense Media (CSM), however, demands nuance. Gone are the days of easily broad brushing all social media as “obviously” harmful.

You can access this hefty 72-page report on the website. It’s fascinating stuff.


Here’s the gist: social media isn’t a toxic wasteland devoid of any redeeming value. Many teens view social media in positive terms, as valuable and important to their social well-being.

Sure. Sure. We might think that teens would be loath to throw social media under the bus, but this research is more sophisticated than just asking teens if they like Snapchat. It’s an empirical study that indicates that social media isn’t necessarily as socially corrosive as we’ve feared.

Okay, let’s go deeper.

James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of CSM, says, “The percentage of teens who engage with social media multiple times a day has gone from 34 percent in 2012 to 70 percent in 2018.”

That’s a staggering number. To not pay attention to social media research going forward will miss out on a massive swath of how the world works.

The CSM study verifies what parents already know: Snapchat is the current social media juggernaut for teens. Fully 41 percent of teen social media use is via Snapchat. In addition, teens report that their most used form of social contact with others is text. In-person engagement has fallen from first place at 49 percent to second place at 32 percent.

All of this may seem dire. But teens are reporting these quantitatively high levels of social media connections as a qualitatively valuable way of engagement. For many teens — and this might seem ironic — social media has become a path for trying to ameliorate stress, anxiety and depression. The CSM research, of course, doesn’t indicate that social media is an effective strategy, just that teens feel it helps them.


Clearly, there continues to be a need to search out the best ways to achieve well-being, but the reality is that teens report social media is part of their go-to menu for trying to achieve what might be considered positive well-being. Consequently, to severely limit or sever social media connections might not be wise in many cases.


Teens aren’t naïve about the drawbacks of their social media use, either. As noted by GeekWire’s Frank Catalano, “Some 57 percent of teens said social media often distracts them when they should be doing homework, and 54 percent also are distracted when they should be paying attention to people they’re with.”

Catalano also points to associated research from the Pew Research Center. In the Pew research, teens were forthright: 54 percent said they spent too much time on social media.

But, then the data gets more difficult to parse.


Pew’s Jingjing Jiang notes that, “56 percent of teens associate the absence of their cellphone with at least one of these three emotions: loneliness, being upset or feeling anxious.”


Whereas we might conclude this is an inherently negative posture, for some teens their sense of pain in the absence of social media might be somewhat more analogous to the ache that many of us have if we’re cut off too long from important in-person relationships.


As in-person relationships without boundaries can become enmeshed and unhealthy, so can the relationship that teens have with social media. That, however, doesn’t mean that social media use is a non-starter for healthy engagement. The data challenges that assumption.

Steyer summarizes the CSM study with precision and insight: “Like teenagers themselves, this research presents a complex picture that defies simplistic judgments. For example, on the one hand, teens feel social media strengthens their relationships with friends and family, provides them with an important avenue for self-expression, and makes them feel less lonely and more connected. At the same time, teens acknowledge that social media can detract from face-to-face communication and make them feel left out or ‘less than’ their peers. In general, however, teens are more likely to say that social media has a positive effect on how they feel.”


Our younger generations are exploring new and diverse ways of doing relationships. The jury is still out, but the evidence is mounting. Like those of us before them, today’s teens may be finding that there are successful ways of doing life with others that don’t fit a traditional mold. Let’s be gracious and wise as we journey together, no matter what the vehicle of communication.


Richard Singleton, MACE, MAMFC, LPC, is the president of STARRY in Round Rock.

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