Most Teens Prefer to Chat Online, Rather Than in Person

Most Teens Prefer to Chat Online, Rather Than in Person

About two-thirds favor online communication over face-to-face talks with friends, survey finds

According to a new study from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, 89% of teens say they have smartphones. That compares with 41% six years ago.

By Betsy Morris Sept. 10, 2018 12:46 p.m. ET

More than two-thirds of teens say they would rather communicate with their friends online than in person, according to a new study that comes as tech companies are trying to help parents and children monitor the time spent online.

The study, from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, is an update of a similar survey conducted in 2012 that was one of the first to document the influence of digital media on teens. It lands as Silicon Valley’s technology titans—including Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube—are trying to address rising parental concerns about whether too much screen time can be hurtful.

The percentage of young people who said their favorite way to talk to friends is face-to-face declined to 32% from 49% six years ago, according to the survey of more than 1,000 13 to 17-year-olds conducted in March and April.

“You can’t help but say, ‘Is there something big going on here?’—some fundamental shift in the way people will be communicating with each other in the future,” said Vicky Rideout, of VJR Consulting, the co-author and lead researcher on the project.

Ms. Rideout also noted two other survey findings: a increase to 54%, from 44% six years ago, of teens who say their devices distract them when “I should be paying attention to the people I’m with;” and a big percentage of teens, 44%, who say they are frustrated with friends for being on their phones so much when they are hanging out together.

“I start to wonder are we getting into some negative feedback loop. You’re distracted with people when you’re with them and they’re distracted and it isn’t as fun in person so you’d rather be communicating online,” Ms. Rideout said.

Common Sense, based in San Francisco, promotes safe media and technology for children.

The new study also highlights the increasing frequency of social-media use among teens, 89% of whom now say they have smartphones compared with 41% six years ago. Now, 70% of teens say they use social media more than once a day compared with 34% six years ago; 38% say they are on  social media multiple times an hour, and 16% say they use it almost constantly.

“These updated estimates of teens’ social-media use are helpful because they show how common it is for teens to be checking social media several times per hour or per day,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a University of Michigan assistant professor of pediatrics, who specializes in developmental and behavioral health.

That is significant, she said, in light of a July article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that suggested a link between heavy media use—including frequently checking social media—and the emergence of ADHD symptoms in teens.

She said there have also been recent reports of rising ADHD rates in U.S. children. “That’s only one study so far,” Dr. Radesky said, “but I think it shows that we need to dig deeper into how the frequent split attention, instant gratification and emotional arousal that stem from media use might be influencing teens’ thinking processes.”

When asked which social-media site they use most, 41% of the teens said Snapchat; 22% said Instagram; and 15% said Facebook.  Six years ago, 68% of the teens said Facebook was their main social-media site.


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