Nearly 1 in 5 teens are on TikTok or YouTube 'almost constantly.' Should we be worried?

Nearly 1 in 5 teens are on TikTok or YouTube 'almost constantly.' Should we be worried?

A Pew Research Center report released this week found that nearly one in five teenagers say they are on TikTok or YouTube “almost constantly.” The data led to discourse about what incessant social media use might mean for the youngest members of Gen Z.

Pew surveyed 1,453 13- to 17-year-olds about their relationship with social media and technology. YouTube was the most “widely used” platform, with 93% of respondents saying they regularly use it.

Other popular websites include TikTok (which 63% use regularly), followed by Snapchat (60%) and Instagram (59%). Facebook is also popular (33%), though its use has decreased since last year. Together, Pew found that a third of teenagers use at least one of the five most popular platforms “almost constantly.”

Megan A. Moreno, co-medical director of the American Academy of Pediatrics Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, told Yahoo News that it’s important to consider what “almost constantly” means. Pew left that definition up to their survey respondents, so it could mean something different to each teenager.

“There may be one teenager who goes on TikTok for a few minutes in the morning while they’re eating a bowl of cereal, but on their way to the bus stop, they’re thinking about what they saw,” she said. “Then they might talk to their friend about what they saw. And they might consider that time spent thinking or talking about TikTok as part of their ‘almost constant’ use.”

How social media affects teens

How much social media affects the brains of teenagers is still being studied. Research, like the 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found more than one in four teenage girls have seriously considered suicide, has stoked fear about adolescent social media use, as both rates increased at the same time. But there are many more elements at play beyond social media and screen time. According to 2023 research from JAMA Pediatrics, growing up in the internet age is impacting young people. We just don’t know exactly how, or if the detrimental effects outweigh the good.

Though the data from Pew might seem alarming, there have not been enough findings on the effect of social media use on teens to support the need for any sort of widespread restriction, according to a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, as cited in the Los Angeles Times. The report recommends that individual families create plans for their children.

Moreno told Yahoo News that a lot of parents worry about whether their child is spending too much time looking at screens, but it’s what they’re looking at that should be their focus. For instance, she said spending five minutes looking at violent content or plugging into a toxic community is too much, but large amounts of time looking at funny or entertaining content is harmless.

How much is too much time online?

So how do we know, as peers or parents, whether a teenager is spending too much time online or too much time in a toxic community? The same way we know if they’re struggling with anything at all, Moreno said. By paying attention to their behavior — seeing if they withdraw or fall behind on schoolwork, social engagements and other activities. Moreno recommended that parents offer to watch social media content with their kids, especially the posts they create themselves.

In addition to data about social media use, Pew found that nearly half of teenagers say they use the internet “almost constantly.” But the internet is now a core part of the schooling experience. According to Pew research from March 2020, which was collected before the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and required students to do schoolwork online during the day, roughly six out of 10 eighth graders rely on their home internet to do their homework.

Moreno also noted that social media is no longer one single unavoidable platform that kids feel they need to have to keep their social lives strong, like Myspace in the early 2000s. Sites now have different social expectations — for instance, kids might feel pressured to keep up with their Snapchat streaks with friends, but they also might just want to consume videos on YouTube. With so many social media sites to choose from, they can curate their online experience.

Just because a teenager has a high phone screen time doesn’t necessarily mean they’re actively suffering from an overload of dopamine and unachievable social expectations, according to Moreno. That might be part of their experience, but it’s not universal.

“One thing we [at the American Academy of Pediatrics Center of Excellence on Social Media and Youth Mental Health] are hearing from parents is that they’re exhausted with being scared all the time,” Moreno said. “It’s important to take these practical tools to break down these scary headlines.”