This article first appeared on Educating Modern Learners in April 2015

Earlier this year, an article "written by an actual teen" made the rounds on social media. The article promised "A Teenager's View of Social Media," and the author's pronouncements were taken as gospel:

  • "Facebook is dead to us."
  • "Instagram is by far the most used social media outlet for my age group."
  • "To be honest, a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter."
  • "Snapchat is quickly becoming the most used social media network."
  • "Tumblr is like a secret society that everyone is in, but no one talks about."

Internet researcher danah boyd responded to the article with "An Old Fogey's Analysis of a Teenager's View on Social Media," cautioning that "What [the author is] sharing is not indicative of all teens. More significantly, what he's sharing reinforces existing biases in the tech industry and journalism that worry me tremendously." As boyd pointed out, the author is a 19-year-old white male, attending the University of Texas, Austin. "Let me put this bluntly," she wrote, "teens' use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background."

Not surprisingly, boyd's arguments are echoed in the latest Pew Research Center report on teens and social media, which highlights (among other things) "a distinct pattern in social media use by socio-economic status."

Across demographics - race, ethnicity, class, gender - the report makes clear that teens are online a lot: 92% of teens say they go online daily. 24% of teens report they're online "almost constantly."

Much of this is due to the ubiquity of mobile phones. Based on Pew's survey (a nationally representative sample of 1,060 teens ages 13 to 17), 88% of American teens have (or have access to) a mobile phone of some kind; and the majority of teens (73%) have smartphones. That's up from 78% teens who reported having mobile phones in the previous Pew survey of teens and technology in 2013. Then, just 47% had smartphones.

85% of African-American teens have a smartphone, compared with 71% of white and Latino teens. (12% of teens say they have no access to a mobile phone of any kind.) But African-American and Latino teens are less likely to have access to other mobile computing devices. According to the survey,

White teens are more likely to report having a desktop or laptop computer - with 91% of white teens owning a desktop or laptop compared with 82% of Hispanic youth and 79% of African- American youth. Household income and parents' educational level are also factors in teens' access to desktops or laptops. Teens whose families earn less than $50,000 a year are less likely to have access to a desktop or laptop, though even among these groups, eight out of ten teens (80%) have these machines. And among more well-to-do teens, 91% own or have access to desktops or laptops.

This difference is important for educators to recognize, particularly if they expect students to have Internet access at home. What you can accomplish with Internet access and a laptop is quite different from what you can accomplish with Internet access and a phone.

How teens use social media - which social media platforms they use - is also something that educators should be aware of.

This seems particularly important if, as recent news has suggested, schools are surveilling social media for signs of cheating and other infractions. That is, which teens are likely to be caught up in that sort of dragnet? If it's Twitter that's being monitored, for example, it's worth noting that, according to Pew, 45% of African-American teens use Twitter; 34% of Latino; 31% of white teens.

Despite all the media reports that teens are abandoning Facebook, the site remains the most popular and most frequently used social media platform for their age group. 71% of teens say they use Facebook. (That is down from 77% in the 2013 Pew report, for what it's worth.)

Usage of Facebook differs based on socio-economic status. Teens from households with an annual income less than $50,000 are more likely to say they use Facebook. Teens from affluent homes lean towards Snapchat and Instagram.

Social media usage also differs based on gender:

Boys are more likely than girls to report that they visit Facebook most often (45% of boys vs. 36% of girls). Girls are more likely than boys to say they use Instagram (23% of girls vs. 17% of boys) and Tumblr (6% of girls compared with less than 1% of boys).

According to Pew, teenage girls are most apt to use "visually-oriented" social media platforms such as Tumblr or Pinterest. Boys are more likely to own gaming consoles and play video games - 91% of boys say they own consoles; just 71% of girls say that have or have access to one. Girls send and receive more texts (~40 per day). They're more likely to use Snapchat. And girls are a little bit more likely to use anonymous apps. Only 11% of teens use these currently - 13% of girls, and 8% of boys.

But again, when it comes to usage of anonymous apps, there are other differences based on demographics:

Hispanic teens are nearly twice as likely as white teens to use these platforms, with 16% of Hispanic youth using anonymous sharing or question platforms compared with 9% of whites. And just 6% of the least well-off teens (those whose parents earn less $30,000 a year) visit anonymous sites, compared with 12% of teens from more well-to-do homes."

The Pew report shows the complexities of teens' social media usage, and as such it should caution us against sweeping generalizations about what certain generations do or do not do with technology.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

Back to Archives