Students Social Media

Youth Social Media and Smartphone Use: A Problem or Tool for Good?

Social media and smartphones are omnipresent and powerfully influence our lives. Our current president reaches millions, stirs emotions, and ignites national debates with every Tweet he posts. Celebrities, such as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and Beyonce, hold sway over tens of millions of followers. Every social issue, political movement, business, and nonprofit uses social media strategies of some kind to promote their ideas, causes, services, and products.

What does social media—and wide access to social media through smartphones—mean for American youth? Are they a net-positive or negative to youth development and learning? Counter to what many parents, educators, and youth development experts fear, social media and smartphones may offer a new, effective tool. It may be able to offer social and intellectual supports to many youth—particularly marginalized and isolated youth that often struggle to access these resources in safe, confidential, and engaging ways.

Growth of Access and Use

Youth and smartphones have become synonymous. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center Report, nearly three-quarters of teens have access to a smartphone, and 92% of teens go online daily. An earlier 2010 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study found that, on average, eight to eighteen-year-olds spent seven hours using screen media a day.

With this explosion of use and online access, parents, educators, and health experts have sounded the alarm over everything from smartphone addiction, deteriorating social skills, narcissism, cyber-bullying, sexting, cyber-predators, exposure, and desensitization. Some even went as far as to look into pornography and violence, sleep deprivation, and potential negative effects on adolescent brain development.

Of course, these are legitimate concerns, and many, if left unaddressed, can lead to great harm. Families and educators are right to be vigilant, and we need guidance and resources to ensure safe, limited, and appropriate smartphone use and social media activity by youth.

Most high schools around the country have responded in some way, offering everything from health lessons on technology and smartphones to parent workshops and resources to the creation of Tech-Free Zones. Online articles offering parents smartphone and social media pointers, even “smartphone contract” templates, are widely available.

Yet lost in this heightened anxiety and flurry of parental advice are the significant, often transformative, benefits social media and smartphones can offer youth and families. In addition to helping parents stay in touch with teens and monitor their whereabouts, or to helping students keep up with their studies with a growing suite of mobile education apps (e.g. math apps), social media and smartphones have opened up a range of positive opportunities, experiences, and patterns of communication for youth.

Emerging, positive benefits of smartphones and social media for youth include:

Breaking down isolation and fostering kinship among traditionally marginalized youth groups

In general, teens report that social media helps to facilitate peer relationships. For example, a 2012 study by Common Sense Media reports that 69% of teens using social media reported that it helped them get to know students at their school better, and 57% reported it helped them make new friends. The Pew Research Center Study found that 68% of teens reported receiving support from peers through social media during challenges or tough times.

However, for certain traditionally marginalized youth, such as LGBTQ youth, “tech-geeks,” deaf youth, youth with disabilities, rural youth, shy or introverted youth, and youth that are part of two or more of these subgroups (e.g. rural LGBTQ youth), social media can also serve as an important lifeline, helping them connect with similar, supportive peers, join affinity groups, or connect in positive ways with youth from other subgroups. The It Gets Better Project and Distinc.tt, for example, are two rapidly growing social media networks and support resources for LGBTQ youth.

Encouraging youth activism and giving youth a voice

Whether environmental protectionism, social justice movements (e.g. Black Lives Matter, Boko Haram’s abduction of Nigerian girls, etc.), concern for immigrants, disaster relief efforts, or health equity causes (e.g. AIDs and Ebola in Africa), social networks now inform and facilitate significant civic engagement and volunteerism among youth on a local, national and global scale.

Recent student activism at Boston Latin High School is a local example. Concerned over the lack of appropriate response to racial incidents at their school, two Boston Latin students launched a social media powered campaign called BLS BLACK— via Twitter and YouTube – to raise awareness, garner national attention, and spur action from the Boston Public Schools and the Mayor.

Facilitating difficult adult-youth dialogue

Smart phones can work in the same way as the classic car conversation, where a parent who is driving and looking at the road can more easily talk with their teenage son or daughter while not making eye contact. Similarly, texting and instant messaging can allow parents to easily and discreetly begin a discussion on a sensitive or timely subject with teenagers. Smart phone texting and apps have also become an effective, cost-effective, and supplemental mental health strategy for youth. For example, counselors can use smartphone technology (e.g. Mood 24/7) to coach, advise, and monitor teens with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health challenges – teens that otherwise might avoid or miss in-person sessions because of stigma, transportation or scheduling issues. Other mobile resources, such as DoSomething.org‘s Crisis Text Line and the CodeBlue app, provides crisis intervention services— e.g. 24 hour access to trained counseling and referrals or alert systems that allow teens to send a text message to a designated support network if they are feeling acutely depressed.

These are only some of the developments and trends.

The pace and patterns of youth social media and smartphone use and activity are fluid and ever-evolving. We need the help of education and youth development researchers to document both supportive and harmful social media and smartphone practices, and what facilitates positive experiences. This insight is critical for parents, educators, counselors, and physicians alike to develop more nuanced, balanced strategies to promote healthy behavior and use.

As with all technological advances, there are both negative and positive consequences to social media and smartphones. And with the march of technology, there is also no turning back or hiding from these new ‘ways of being.’ To be sure, caution, vigilance, and ground-rules are needed. Yet reacting to social media and smartphones primarily with anxiety and an urge to control access is short-sighted. We must recognize and encourage positive uses as well.

Jake Murray

Jake Murray

Jake is the faculty director for professional education at Boston University’s School of Education. Unendingly nosy and curious, he researches and writes often about education and social policy and innovation. For more research and insight from Jake, you can follow him on Twitter at @jake_murray44.