The Secret Online Lives of Teenagers Revealed

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New research finds that 92 percent of teens go online every day, and 24 percent say they’re online “almost constantly.” (Photo: iStock)

Ever wonder what your teenager is doing behind that screen all day? A new study is shedding light on how teens are using the Internet and social media, which they’re doing now more than ever.

According to the Pew Research Center’s report, “Teens, Social Media & Technology Overview 2015,” which was released on Thursday, 92 percent of teens go online everyday and 24 percent report being online “almost constantly.” Amanda Lenhart, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center and the study’s lead author, says the news isn’t particularly surprising. “This very frequent use of the Internet is not an unusual finding as we think about how our kids are spending their days and their time,” Lenhart tells Yahoo Parenting. “But it’s interesting to consider what that means in terms of distraction and access.”

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An increasing number of teens are using mobile devices to get online, Lenhart says. According to the research, 88 percent of teens have or have access to cell phones or smart phones, while 91 percent go online from a mobile device at least occasionally.

And when their faces are buried in their screens? They could be posting on any number of social media sites, or dissecting any of the 30 text messages teens send and receive, on average, each day. “There’s been a rush to declare the demise of Facebook, but that is premature,” Lenhart says. “It is still the dominant social media platform for American adolescents.” The research found that 71 percent of teens aged 13 to 17 use Facebook, and, on average, they have 145 Facebook friends.

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But while Facebook is still the biggest, it certainly isn’t teens’ only platform. “There’s been a huge diversification of social media,” Lenhart says. “If you are wondering where your child is, you probably need to cast a wide net, because there is a variety of places where your teen could be spending his or her social media time.”

In fact, while 76 percent of teens say they engage in social media, 71 percent say they use more than one social media network. The second most popular site is Instagram, with 52 percent of teens saying they use the platform, while 41 percent use Snapchat and 33 percent use Twitter.

But instead of throwing up your hands, resigned to the fact that your teen will forever be attached to a screen and disengaged from the family, Lenhart says parents should join the online party. “Parents can use this as a roadmap for helping to stay in touch with their child’s digital media lives,” she says. “They change constantly, and reports like ours give parents a clue where to look next. Social media is a new check box in the list of things you have to do as a modern parent, but it’s an important way your kids are socializing and accessing information, so it behooves you to be there in ways that are meaningful and affirming.”

In fact Dr. Deborah Gilboa, a parenting expert and family physician, says that all parents should be online with their teens. “This is an opportunity for us to show our kids that we respect their medium, and we are interested in parenting them in the virtual sphere as well as the real-life sphere,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “We want them to know, ‘this isn’t a Neverland of no adults, but we’re not there to police, either. We are citizens of this world, too.’”

As a rule, your child should not be on any social medium that you aren’t on, Gilboa says. But don’t focus entirely on monitoring them. “We want to know what they are posting and guide it, with the end goal of giving them social media autonomy,” she says. “They are going to drive their online presence and virtual lives without us in just a few years, so we have to be working towards them doing that responsibly.” That starts with teaching kids as soon as they are on social media – which shouldn’t be before 13, she says – what is safe to post and what should always remain private. When used correctly, “social media is a cool opportunity to create yourself, build an online presence, and cultivate an audience,” she says.

Gilboa says parents should find ways to incorporate social media as a family. “Create a family hashtag, or a family group on Snapchat,” she says. “Social media and technology does not have to be divisive – it can be something that brings your family together.”

The natural response to extreme statistics like those in the Pew report might be negative, Gilboa says, but this is the way of the future. “That kids are online more than ever isn’t bad news. It’s like back when people said rock ‘n’ roll and television were bad news,” she says. It’s fine to set screen rules for the home – like no cell phones at the dinner table – but trying to eliminate them entirely is counterproductive, she says. Gilboa’s son is turning 13 in three weeks and she says he’s counting the days until he can stay up late creating an Instagram account. “I said, ‘knock yourself out,’” she says. “After all, what job could my son get in ten years where he wouldn’t need to be proficient in social media?

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