Teens Know Social Media Is Manipulative. But They Just Can’t Get Enough.


Teens Know Social Media Is Manipulative. But They Just Can’t Get Enough.

By Stephen Noonoo     Sep 10, 2018

Teens Know Social Media Is Manipulative. But They Just Can’t Get Enough.

Almost three-quarters of teens said they know social media companies are manipulating them into spending more time online. Yet somewhat paradoxically, they also say the technology has a positive impact on their wellbeing.

The survey from nonprofit Common Sense Media, called “Social Media, Social Life,” is a follow up to a similar report conducted in 2012, where teens were also asked about their relationship with social media. This year, a sample of around 1,100 teens aged 13-17 participated, answering a broad range of questions about their perceptions of technology and how they’re actually using it.

“The fact that most teens, nearly 3 out of 4, believe tech companies manipulate their users is a very big finding,” says Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense in a call with reporters. “I think we’re seeing a more maturing teen population.”

Compared with six years ago, teens are now spending more time on social media platforms. Around 81 percent said they are on social media—similar to the number of teens who reported ever using it in 2012. Yet 70 percent of respondents now say they check it multiple times a day, compared with just 34 percent six years ago.

Source: Common Sense Media

At the same time, the number of teens who value face-to-face contact with their friends has dropped as social media and texting have become more important to them. Spending more time online and with digital devices can also prove distracting. More than half of respondents reported that social media distracts them from homework or from paying attention to the people they’re with. (Conversely, 44 percent said they get frustrated with friends for spending too much time on their phones when they’re together.)

All this makes for a strange Catch-22. “Kids are both finding it difficult to put their devices down, and are also irritated with their friends who can’t put their devices down,” says Sierra Filucci, Common Sense’s parenting editor. “I think we’re kind of struggling with this dynamic. It’s a reflection of a larger cultural moment.”

Teens in the survey were more likely to report that social media has a positive effect on their emotional well-being. Although most teens were ambivalent—saying it doesn’t impact them one way or another—a quarter said it made them feel less lonely; a fifth said it made them feel more confident and popular. Meanwhile, those who said it made them feel the opposite were in the low single digits.

The findings contrast with other research cited in the Common Sense report, which linked a higher emotional investment in social media to feelings of anxiety. Another cited report found that 8th graders who spent 10 hours or more a week on social media were more likely to report being unhappy.

Source: Common Sense Media

The report also included a series of targeted questions about depression and happiness, and researchers classified respondents, based on their answers, on a social-emotional wellbeing scale. Students who scored low on this scale were separately grouped as being more vulnerable and were found more likely to experience negative reactions—such as feeling bad when few people like or comment on status updates. They were also more likely to report incidents of cyberbullying compared to their peers who were not categorized as vulnerable.

Victoria Rideout, one of the report’s authors, notes that when the survey was taken six years ago, fewer vulnerable teens saw social media as beneficial to their wellbeing. Although the report does not delve into why teens feel different now, she speculates it could be a result of their learning how to support each other online and seek out more inspirational content. It could also be a result of educational efforts into areas such as digital citizenship, she says.

“I think it’s a very positive little nugget, and it could speak to digital literacy efforts where there have been some improvements.”

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