With widespread misinformation, echo chambers and dubious fact-checking — not to mention Twitter appearing on the verge of collapse — you might expect today's teenagers to view social media as a cesspool. But a survey released today by the Pew Research Center paints a significantly less dire picture of how today’s teens perceive social media’s effect on their lives.
The Pew Research Center polled 1,316 American teens ages 13 to 17 between April 14th and May 4th, 2022. Much like a previous version of the poll from 2018, the adolescents reported a more nuanced — and often rosier — experience than adults who grew up in pre-social-media eras may expect.
Eighty percent of teens surveyed say what they view on social media makes them feel more connected to their friends’ lives, while 71 percent report that it gives them a place to express their creativity. Sixty-seven percent answered that it connects them with people who support them during tough times, while fewer — 58 percent — say it makes them feel more accepted.
Most teens describe social media as a largely neutral experience, with 59 percent saying it has neither a positive nor negative effect on them. Still, it skews more positive than negative as more adolescents say it’s been more favorable (32 percent) than unfavorable (nine percent).
However, some of the teens polled expressed concerns. Thirty-eight percent said they feel overwhelmed by the platforms’ daily drama, while one-third say they feel like their friends are leaving them out of things. Another 29 percent report pressure to post content receiving many likes or comments, and 23 percent describe social media apps as making them feel worse about their lives. As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2021, Meta knew its product made teen girls feel worse about themselves — and proceeded to downplay it.
Online privacy is a hotbed issue in today’s climate, and teens don’t report high levels of confidence — or concern — about social media companies harvesting their data. Sixty percent of teens say they feel little to no control over how companies collect and use their data. However, only 20 percent report feeling very or extremely concerned about data collection. More than double that (44 percent) describe having little or no concern about how much social-media companies like TikTok and Meta know about them.
Only one in ten teens polled say they use social media to encourage political action or post about social issues. An even lower rate (seven percent) reported posting hashtags related to political or social causes. (Not being old enough to vote may be the simplest explanation for that.) However, among those who engaged in online activism, that rate more than doubled among Democrat or left-leaning teens (14 percent) compared to Republican or right-leaning teens (six percent).
Teen girls report feeling overwhelmed at higher rates than their male counterparts: 45 percent to about one third. Higher rates of girls also answered that social media has made them feel left out. Older girls report more caution about posting content that others could use against them: Half of girls aged 15 to 17 say they often or sometimes decide not to post content out of fear of embarrassment. Lower rates of younger girls and adolescent boys report the same.
Self-reporting surveys can illustrate the polled groups’ perceptions about how social media affects them. Still, it would be a mistake to assume that it always reflects reality. Past studies focused more on measurable effects have concluded it depends primarily on how you use it. For example, those who use social media to connect with others benefit more than those who passively read content.
One issue the survey didn't address was the rate of teens using social media. Although Gen Z — to which most of today's teens belong —still has high social media usage, it's the only generation showing declining use. Maybe growing up on social media has led to a generational indifference.