The vast majority of teens in a new survey believe social media is actually good for them, a Pew Research Center report shows. Seriously: 81% of teens said it makes them feel more connected to friends, 71% said it helps them show their creative side, 69% said it helps them make friends and with a more diverse group of people, and 68% feel like they have people who support them through tough times. (And no, this wasn’t secretly funded by Facebook.)
Much research has focused on social media being a huge waste of time at best, a facilitator of ideological bubbles, and a dangerous, hostile experience for young people at worst. But the 743 teens Pew surveyed say it’s actually, well, good. Millennials were the first to make social media mainstream, but might their Gen Z successors have figured out a better relationship with their smartphones? Growing up among devices and platforms could just make today’s teens better at incorporating technology into their lives than even the millennials before them, with greater awareness of the hazards. The internet clearly can be a dangerous place, but teens now have the self-awareness to know when it's time to unplug. No cohort until now has had such complete smartphone and social media penetration. I mean, things are really different now: A decade ago, people were still using MySpace on desktops.
Monica Anderson, who has been studying teens and technology as a researcher at the Pew Research Center, told BuzzFeed News, “We often think it’s just teens posting their selfies, but they’re really using it to make meaningful connections.” And by the way, less than half of teens say they post selfies to social media, and only 16% say they do it often. It’s official: Selfies are passé, a regrettable millennial fad. Teens today might approach social media more carefully and deliberately: Unlike in Pew’s 2007 survey of teens, it’s no longer merely about keeping up with friends.
Overall, Gen Z teens feel social media has mainly positive role in their lives: 71% say social media makes them feel included instead of excluded, and 69% say it makes them feel confident instead of insecure. For girls who spend time in any sort of online group or forum, 24% say that online group has played a major role in getting them through a tough time in their life.
It’s also helped teens socialize with friends who they can’t spend time with because of “obligations” (hello, five hours of homework), and talk to a more diverse group. And in addition to exposing them to people from different backgrounds, 67% say it allows them to find a different point of view. Those are good things!
Of course, it’s not all good news in the survey, and social media is not perfect. “What we’re seeing in our data is that the story is a little more nuanced,” Anderson told BuzzFeed News.
Before you grab a teen at the library and scream at them to “put down that book and get on Instagram, NOW!” Pew also uncovered downsides. Close to half (45%) of teens say they feel overwhelmed by drama on social media and 26% (a minority, but a sizable one) say that it makes them feel worse about their own lives.
A study from this spring showed that 24% of teens think social media has a negative impact on people their age, mainly citing bullying and harassment. A report from September showed 59% of teens had experienced some form of cyberbullying.
Still, the data show that the effect of social media on today’s teens isn’t quite as worrisome as some parents portray. “There’s positives and negatives to everything, and teens are getting a really positive experience,” said Anderson.
She points out that the total ubiquity of smartphones is still very new — Pew’s 2018 study showed that 95% of American teens have access to a smartphone, up significantly from even 2015 — so this is still a brave new world. “There’s still more to learn about the nuances of the experiences teens have, and digging more into the area around harassments, safe spaces, and free speech,” Anderson said.