Generation Z, also known as the iGeneration, has not known a time without smartphones, tablets, laptops or gaming consoles. They use social media apps, texting and Xbox consoles to communicate with friends instead of talking on the phone or meeting up in person. They consume YouTube videos and Netflix series at nearly double pace as they did four years ago.
According to The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 2019, which surveyed more than 1,600 tweens and teens across the country on their relationship to and use of media technology compared with 2015, more than half of children who are 11-years-old and older have a smartphone; 19 percent of children have a smartphone by the age 8. Tweens average about 5 hours a day on screens while teens average nearly 7.5 hours; this time does not include homework or classwork. (Figure G was taken from The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 2019.)
In the past four years, online video watching has nearly doubled while the consumption of traditional media–books, magazines, TV–has declined. And unlike originally thought, that smartphones could provide a creative outlet for tweens and teens, few 8 to 18-year-olds use their devices to create content; instead preferring to consume content produced by others, according to the October 2019 report from Common Sense Media.
While this may not come as a surprise to any adults who parent or regularly interact with tweens and teens, seeing the data in black and white or laid out in colorful graphs (if reading online), the information can be startling. (Figure G was taken from The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 2019.)
Here are some takeaways:
- More than twice as many young people watch videos every day than they did in 2015, and the average time spent watching has roughly doubled. This coincides with a large drop in the amount of time tweens and teen spend watching TV.
- By age 11, 53 percent of children have their own smartphone, and by age 12, 69 percent do.
- There are substantial differences in the amount of screen media (watching videos, playing games, using social media) young people use based on socioeconomic status. Teens and tweens from higher income homes use less screen time than their lower-income peers, despite having greater access to computers. (Figure F was taken from The Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens 2019.)
- The amount of time devoted to social media has remained steady; however, African American and Hispanic/Latino teens spend more time on social media than their white peers.
- Despite the new affordances and promises of digital devices, young people devote very little time to creating their own content; use of digital devices for reading, writing, video chatting, or creating content remains minimal.
- Boys and girls have vastly different tastes in media; boys enjoy nearly all types of gaming while girls’ favorite activities are listening to music, by far, and social media.
With all this time spent online what about traditional media sources: books, magazines, television? In her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood, Jean M. Twenge, PhD, focuses one chapter entirely on internet time and the dwindling amount of time spent with paper pages between the hands of the iGen inhabitants. (Twenge’s book was copy written in 2017–nestled nicely between the 2015 and 2019 Common Sense Media surveys.)
According to Twenge, in the 1970s the majority of teens read a book or magazine nearly every day; in 2015, only 16 percent did. Twenge said the number of teen readers did climb a bit in the 2010s as more used electronic books like Kindle, but the trend didn’t last. According to the Common Sense 2019 survey, 32 percent of all teens in this country say they read for pleasure less than once a month, if at all. When tweens and teens read it’s primarily for school-related work, more often not in the traditional book format, and usually not for pleasure. Twenge suggests that maybe the formatting of books, magazines, textbooks need to adjust with the times and meet children and students where they are: shorter passages, interactive activities, videos to support text, more conversational writing styles and questionnaires.
It’s not totally doom and gloom, though. Despite YouTube videos, Netflix series, social media posts and mobile gaming becoming interwoven into the lives of tweens and teens, the amount of time spent watching videos, scrolling through Instagram and SnapChat and stargazing on Fortnite have not increased since 2015, according to the latest Common Sense Media survey. Study authors suspect that this could be a time of stability and respite from the rapid increase in screen-time use.
“We have all gotten used to a constantly accelerating pace of change in young people’s media lives; but, for the first time, this wave of the survey indicates that the pace of change in young people’s media lives may have slowed. The survey has revealed some interesting and important changes over the past four years: increasing connectivity among tweens, rising screen media usage among teens, an explosion in online video viewing at the expense of television. But given the revolutionary pace at which young people’s media environments have been changing over the past 20 years, it is also noteworthy that for the first time in quite a while, the pace of change appears to have slowed.”
So what’s a parent or caring adult in a tween’s or teen’s life to do? The technology isn’t going away, but adults can help shape how children use it by providing a strong parental hand to help model, guide, and instill healthy habits, according to Stacey Steinberg, a law professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. Parents and tweens/teens could also take advantage of tools, such as Apple’s Screen Time, to track their screen time as a means of holding themselves and their loved ones accountable and to spark discussion about device usage. According to the 2019 survey, among those with their own smartphone or tablet, less than 16 percent of teens and tweens use an app to track their device usage time. Of those same children, only 50 percent of tween parents and 26 percent of teen parents use the app for monitoring purposes.
In a July 2019 NPR interview, Steinberg and fellow experts Dr. Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician and assistant professor at University of Michigan Medical School, and Devorah Heitner, a parent educator and the author of Screenwise, offered these additional tips:
- When possible, put your own phones away when you’re interacting with children;
- The age-old “don’t use the TV as a babysitter” can also be applied to a smartphone and tablet–but this time it applies to both the child and the adult. Try not to use the phone to escape an uncomfortable or boring situation;
- Ask before you post! Respect your child’s right to privacy and teach them to respect that of others;
- Resist the urge to use social media or various apps to stalk your children online; instead, establish an understanding–spoken or written–that helps you feel more secure about your child’s safety and your child feel trusted and use it as a discussion tool.