Most Teens Prefer to Chat Online, Rather Than in Person

By Betsy MorrisUpdated Sept. 10, 2018 5:00 pm 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., Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s GOOG 1.10% Google—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, principal at VJR Consulting, the co-author and lead researcher on the project.

Ms. Rideout noted two other survey findings. The first was a rise in the percentage of teens—to 54%, from 44% six years ago—who say their devices distract them when “I should be paying attention to the people I’m with.” The other finding indicated that a sizable percentage of teens, 44%, say they are frustrated with friends for being on their phones so much when they are 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.ClickingNearly 40% of teens say they are on socialmedia multiple times an hour.Top social-media websites among 13- to 17-year-oldsSource: Common Sense Media polls, most recently of1,141 13- to 17-year-olds in the U.S. conducted March22–April 10; margin of error: +/-3.4 percentage pointsNote: Figures total more than 100% because of theuse of multiple social-media sites.63%614320422SnapchatInstagramFacebookTwitterTumblrRedditOther

“The good news is [teens] are much more aware of its impact—both the good and the bad—than they were a few years ago,” said Jim Steyer, Common Sense chief executive, in an interview. “The bad news is they prefer to communicate with each other online rather than face to face. As a parent and educator, I find that very troubling.”

While teens are savvier about social media, they still can’t resist it. Over 70% said they believe tech companies manipulate users to get them to spend more time on their devices. Fifty-seven percent said social media is a frequent distraction during homework assignments. Yet 31% said they turn their phones off during all or most of homework time.

Few of the teens said social media has a negative effect on how they feel about themselves. But the study showed that social media has a heightened effect, both positively and negatively, in the lives of more vulnerable teens—those who might, say, be depressed, lonely, or lack self-esteem. Those teens are more likely than the others to report they have been hurt by social media. But they are more likely than six years ago to say social media has had a positive effect on them.

“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 in teens of symptoms of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

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.

Write to Betsy Morris at