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Teen technology use and how COVID has changed it

Teens are active and frequent technology users. And it’s hard to keep up with what they’re doing online. Teen technology use changes fast as new devices, apps, and app features are released.

Over the past few years, a lot more teens have smartphones and younger teens have smartphones. About half of 11-year-olds (53%) have their own smartphone, and that increases to 69% by age 12.

Girl looking at cell phone at home

What are they doing online?

How teens use their smartphones has changed over time and changes as they get older. In 2018, the most used social media apps were YouTube (85%), Instagram (72%) and Snapchat (69%) – only 51% of teens now say they use Facebook. As of fall 2020, it was estimated that 69% of US teens were monthly TikTok users. 

The number of youth who say they watch videos online “every day” has more than doubled, going from 24% to 56% among 8- to 12-year-olds, and from 34% to 69% among 13- to 18-year-olds. The amount of time they spend watching videos online has gone from about a half-hour a day to an hour a day on average.

How did COVID-19 affect teen technology use?

During an August 2020 survey, 63% of US parents reported they lowered their standards for what they thought was appropriate screen time for their children due to COVID-19. Seventy percent of parents reported their children were spending four or more hours a day online. But it’s not all bad. About half (53%) of young people say social media has been ‘very’ important to them during the pandemic for staying connected to friends and family.

Social media is distracting

It’s common to hear parents say teens spend too much time online, but you may not know that many teens agree - 58% of teens feel distracted by their mobile phone at least once a day; 44% of teens feel their parent is distracted by their phone.

Mother looking at daughter's cell phone

Why use social media?

When asked how they want to talk with their friends, 35% of teens say they prefer texting, 32% prefer talking in person, and 16% prefer using social media. Teens use social media because they say it makes them feel less lonely and more confident. 

How can family professionals assist parents in monitoring teen social media use?

Share with parents that there is no one right way to monitor teen social media use; it’s different for every family. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Encourage parents to establish family rules together with their children before there’s a problem. Empower parents to be consistent in enforcing them.
  • Suggest that parents model the behavior they want for their teens.
  • Recommend parents check out online monitoring tools - what’s available through their service provider, or do they need a fee-based service?
  • Suggest parents explore online tools like commonsensemedia.org (click on “Parents Need to Know”) to learn how social media sites work and how to use privacy settings.

Additional Resources

Explore this topic further with a recent Extension webinar on teen online behavior with Jodi Dworkin. 

University of Minnesota Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, Youth in Care and Social Media Use
Includes online resources as well as a three part module you can access at the bottom of the page. While it was specifically designed for youth in care, the majority of the information is broader and reflects the concerns families may have and how to keep their teens safe online.

Author: Jodi Dworkin,  professor and Extension specialist, University of Minnesota  Department of Family Social Science.

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