Kids in America, using social media and playing computer games

How are teenagers using technology?

PewResearch_logoThis question has occupied media coverage and educators’ thoughts since the 20th century.  It has given rise to rumors, legends, myths, and policies.  Thankfully Pew Research is continuing its longstanding practice of conducting sober research.  Several days ago they issued a very useful update, which I’ll break down in this post.

To create the report Pew’s team polled more than 1,000 American teens (aged 13-17) a few months ago.

Specific platforms  – the big headline many people are taking from the report is the decline of Facebook among teens.  It fell behind Instagram and especially YouTube and Snapchat:

Today, roughly half (51%) of U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say they use Facebook, notably lower than the shares who use YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat.

This is fascinating in a variety of ways.  For one, it gives real data to the long-prophecied (and long-imagined) exodus of young people from Facebook.  I’m not sure what impact that’ll have (see below).

It is interesting to think that the more visually-centered platforms (video, images) are leading for teens.  Yes, Facebook supports images and video, but those aren’t its core functions.  I’m also curious why Snapchat stomps Instagram in daily usage.

It’s also important to notice that the winners are not very web-friendly.  Snapchat and Instagram are very much mobile app creations (Pew also notes that “smartphone ownership has become a nearly ubiquitous element of teen life: 95% of teens now report they have a smartphone or access to one”), and the YouTube app offers a better phone experience than does the browser version.  Snap is the opposite of the web in that it doesn’t support persistent URLs (Facebook is horrible at this, too, but in a different way).

On the flip side, Twitter occupies an interesting position, with one third of teens using it.  It’s not a majority platform, but neither is it a small niche like Tumblr and Reddit. I’d like to see that broken down by demographics in all kinds of ways.  Meanwhile, Tumblr remains very marginal, for all of its cultural cachet in certain fields, like publishing.  The daily use number is truly tiny, below 1%.  Unlike Facebook, the T-platforms haven’t experienced a decline: “The shares of teens who use Twitter and Tumblr are largely comparable to the shares who did so in the 2014-2015 survey.”

Reddit use is also almost vanishingly small.  Is that platform another technology which adults are more likely to use than kids, a la LinkedIn?

I have several caveats about this part of the study.  Pew admits they don’t have longitudinal data on YouTube, since they didn’t ask teens about it previously.    And I can’t tell how many teens contribute to YouTube (with videos or comments), versus how many just watch videos there.

Platforms and time – the amount of time teens spend online, across all platforms, keeps rising.

45% of teens say they use the internet “almost constantly,” a figure that has nearly doubled from the 24% who said this in the 2014-2015 survey. Another 44% say they go online several times a day, meaning roughly nine-in-ten teens go online at least multiple times per day.

Wealth and income – one major and underreported dimension of the study is the way leaving Facebook is correlated with wealth, and active teen use with being non-rich.  The difference is actually quite stark:

Seven-in-ten teens living in households earning less than $30,000 a year say they use Facebook, compared with 36% whose annual family income is $75,000 or more.

Did Facebook usage just become a class marker?  Is it the next smoking, with usage being a characteristic of the working class, the poor, and the less well educated?

And speaking of which…

Race – Facebook use, and Facebook avoidance, may now be a race marker:

white teens (41%) are more likely than Hispanic (29%) or black (23%) teens to say Snapchat is the online platform they use most often, while black teens are more likely than whites to identify Facebook as their most used site (26% vs. 7%).

So a pattern seems to be emerging.  If you’re a wealthy and/or white teen, you are likely to avoid Facebook in favor of other platforms.  If you are working class/poor and/or black or Hispanic, you are likely to be a Facebook user.

What can we learn from this, especially in education?

One way education plays out in the study is the very stark difference in how parents’ educational attainment correlates with kids’ Facebook use.  Basically, adults’ college graduation clobbers Facebook use among their offspring.  According to the Pew study’s data tables, 65% of teens whose parents achieved a “High school or less” education used Facebook.  61% of teens whose parents experienced “Some college” used Facebook.  But for those whose parents had an undergrad or grad degree, only 33% were on Facebook.  That’s a really big drop.  What does it mean that a BA, MA, PhD drives the diploma-holder’s teen children away from Zuckerberg-land?

One more interesting difference by race: “Hispanic teens are more likely than whites to report using the internet almost constantly (54% vs. 41%).”

One caveat here: what happened to Asian-Americans in this research line, Pew?

Gender – two interesting differences opens up by gender in the study.  First, a significant but not huge difference in terms of platform preference:

Girls are more likely than boys to say Snapchat is the site they use most often (42% vs. 29%), while boys are more inclined than girls to identify YouTube as their go-to platform (39% vs. 25%).

Second, a significant but not huge difference by time spent online: “Half of teenage girls (50%) are near-constant online users, compared with 39% of teenage boys.”  Interesting to think how that flies against the old idea that digital technology consists of boys’ toys.

Speaking of old ideas, the belief that boys play games more than girls do is borne out…

While a substantial majority of girls report having access to a game console at home (75%) or playing video games in general (83%), those shares are even higher among boys. Roughly nine-in-ten boys (92%) have or have access to a game console at home, and 97% say they play video games in some form or fashion.

…but those 75% and 83% numbers for teen girls are still very high, way beyond a simple majority.

My thanks to Monica Anderson, Jingjing Jiang, and the rest of the Pew team for producing another essential report.

(For the classical music reference in the title, here’s the explanation:


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9 Responses to Kids in America, using social media and playing computer games

  1. This is fascinating research, and I appreciated your explication. I’d sure like to see a MEGA poll with responses in the hundreds of thousands rather than one thousand.
    As a colllege educated senior, I would love to leave Facebook for a more intellectual counterpart, but in fact, my relatives and fan base tend to be poor and uneducated and on Facebook—not that any of them are teens, the focus of this research, but that I see that feature cutting up into my demographic, too.

  2. Times do change. Remember the MySpace vs Facebook class divide? I can’t help wondering how this shift will affect all the higher ed academic labor and especially adjunct groups using Facebook almost exclusively as their organizing base.

    Like Sandy, I’d like to there way less, if at all, but that’s where most of my personal network is — too many I’d fall out of touch with if I left. It’s also the most convenient for local, community networks. Then there are bright spots like you, John Kellden, George, Chris Carlsson (@Nowtopian), Chris Newfields (wish he’d go back to blogging more though), and others. Convenience and utility may well keep Facebook going.

  3. Gabor Por says:

    I don’t think you can call an “exodus” from Facebook for the 13-17 age group. More likely the young ones were never in ur, while those who were teens 3-5 years ago are still on it. 😉

    I don’t know about the US, but in Hungary where I spend most of my time nowadays it seems most ( or at least half of) kids are producers of YouTube videos, not just consuming them. They all seem to be wanting to be game reviewers or influencers.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Very good point about some kids just not getting onto Facebook, Gabor.

      I’m delighted to hear Hungarian youth are so creative!

  4. Joe Murphy says:

    I find myself wondering about these network effects. Who has the power to pull whom onto which platforms? I still hear an awful lot of folks talking like Vanessa and Sandy… late adopters or people who claim they’d leave Facebook, except that it’s the place where family pictures go. Can enough teens turn to Instagram to pull grandma along? Or as they mature, will they go where older family (and social and work) connections are?

    My bet, quite frankly, is on Facebook doing quite well without many teens around. Just based on life expectancy and a greying population, that seems viable for decades before it becomes a pressing concern. (Ignoring other shocks to the system, like scandal, regulation, and heads-up competition for older eyes, of course.) It creates some interesting questions about the advertising and content distribution models, though. and the biggest question… is the Facebook algorithm sufficiently personalized that we’d even notice a change?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Many good points, Joe. Especially the last!

      I’ve watched would-be competitors try themselves out, and they all fail. The network effect is that huge.

  5. Conrad Lotze says:

    Hi Bryan,

    I suspect that the answer to your question “I’m also curious why Snapchat stomps Instagram in daily usage…” has to do with the streak feature found in Snapchat… kids like to keep streaks going, and can only do so by sending each other snaps on consecutive days.

    My daughter, 14, currently has several year-long streaks going. They ‘force’ kids to use the app daily – brilliant!

    Best, Conrad

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