Understanding your students' social media lives is essential.

teens at school looking at their phones

As teachers, we all have assumptions -- and likely some opinions -– about teenagers and social media. But are those assumptions correct? Well, now we have research to help us find out. This week, Common Sense is releasing its latest research report, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences, a deep dive into the social media habits of American teenagers.

This research is the second wave in an ongoing study tracking teens' attitudes about social media; we released our original report in 2012. Back then, Snapchat was just a fledgling start-up, and Facebook was a top choice for teens. But how -- and how much -- teens use social media has evolved almost as quickly as the technology itself. This year's report doesn't just tell us about teens today; compared with our original data, it shows us just how much things have changed.

It might seem like teens are using social media more than ever (it's true -- they are!). Teachers work with teens every day, so it makes sense that we have our own opinions and anecdotes about their social media use. But it's important to remember that our personal perceptions about social media might not always reflect what our students experience online. And that's why this research is so important. The results of this latest study help us question our assumptions and start addressing real issues that help our students.

Here are four ways our latest research can inform your teaching:

1. Understand your students' social media lives.

Culturally responsive teaching helps students better connect with what they're learning. Because social media is such a huge part of teen culture, we need to know how our students are using these platforms, the types of experiences they're having, and how they feel about it all.

Here are a few, high-level findings to mull over:


Teen Social Media Platform Popularity

Teens' social media use has increased dramatically. Today, 70 percent of teens report using social media more than once a day. In 2012, that number was 34 percent.

Most American teenagers have a smartphone. The number of teens with a smartphone more than doubled since 2012, from 41 percent up to 89 percent. Looking at only 13- to 14-year-olds, 84 percent now have a smartphone, and 93 percent have some type of mobile device such as a tablet.

Facebook is out. Instagram and Snapchat are in. But you probably already knew this. One 16-year-old participant, when asked in the study whom she does communicate with on Facebook, replied, "My grandparents."

No matter our personal feelings about social media, these platforms aren't going away anytime soon. As with any digital tool, even if we aren't experts ourselves, understanding where our students are coming from can make our guidance beneficial.

2. Listen to what students say about their social media experiences.

Sure, kids are using social media more than ever, but they're also recognizing some of the consequences, including digital distraction in the classroom. Listening to students' perspectives gives us insights into how we might help them harness the positives and avoid some of the pitfalls. Here are some details worth reading:

Teens use a lot of social media. Again, you probably could have guessed this, but our data backs it up.


Teen Social Media Use

Teens also recognize that social media is a distraction. 


Teen Communication Preferences

Fifty-seven percent agree that using social media often distracts them when they should be doing homework. Think about that the next time you assign homework online. And 54 percent of teens agree that social media often distracts them when they should be paying attention to the people they're with. Overall, teens' preference for face-to-face communication has fallen, while more and more teens are choosing social media and video-chatting as a favorite way to communicate.

Many teens seem to recognize that social media platforms are designed to keep them hooked. Seventy-two percent believe that tech companies manipulate users to spend more time on their devices.

Nevertheless, many teens say that using social media has a positive effect on how they feel about themselves. Across every measure in the survey, teens were more likely to say that social media has a positive rather than a negative effect on how they feel (though most say it doesn't make much difference one way or the other).


Importance of Social Media

3. Recognize the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL).

Common knowledge tells us that teens' social-emotional well-being is important to their overall health and ability to learn. But, as our study reveals, it also has a big impact on how teens view their interactions on social media. This point is somewhat nuanced, but the implications for educators are significant. Some important key findings to consider:


Importance of Social Media by SEWB

Social media tends to have a heightened role -- both positive and negative -- in the lives of more vulnerable teens. 

Our survey included a social-emotional well-being (SEWB) scale based on concepts such as happiness, depression, loneliness, confidence, self-esteem, and parental relations (for more information on methodology, read the full report). Teens who ranked lower for SEWB are much more likely to say they've had negative experiences on social media, from feeling bad about not getting likes on their posts to feeling left out or excluded.

Disturbingly, more than a third (35 percent) of these teens say they have been cyberbullied, compared to 5 percent of teens who ranked higher for SEWB. Nevertheless, these more-vulnerable teens are still more likely to say that, overall, social media has a positive rather than a negative effect on them. For example, they're much more likely to say it makes them less depressed and less lonely. And ...

Social media is an important avenue of creative expression for many teens, especially for those on the lowest end of the social-emotional well-being scale.


Teen Experiences on Social Media

These findings may be one of the most important for teachers, administrators, and school counselors to consider: For some students -- especially those who struggle with their social-emotional well-being -- the effects of social media, both positive and negative, can be more extreme. Whether we're creating social media policies for our schools, or even just talking to students about social media, it's important to know where students are coming from on the topic –- and even more important to recognize that not all of them are coming from the same place.

Additionally, we should probably ask ourselves some important questions about the intersection of our students’ social media lives and our school communities. How are we handling our interactions with students related to their social media use? When we confiscate students' devices at school, or when conflicts on social media spill over into school, are we offering students one-size-fits-all punishments? Advice? Reactions?

Even when we're just talking about social media in our classrooms, are we modeling curiosity and critical thinking about the topic? Most importantly, these research findings also beg the bigger question: What are we doing to support students' social-emotional learning overall?

4. Support digital citizenship education in your school.

Social media platforms are central to many, if not all, of the topics covered in the Common Sense Education K-12 Digital Citizenship Curriculum. Not surprisingly, here's what teens had to say:

Cyberbullying is somewhat rare. Just 13 percent of teens report that they’ve been cyberbullied at some point. And, perhaps encouragingly, 23 percent say they’ve tried to help someone who has been cyberbullied.


Hate Speech in Social Media

But online hate speech is common: There's been an uptick in teens' exposure to racist, sexist, and homophobic content on social media. 

Whether we're teaching an entire digital citizenship curriculum, incorporating dig cit topics into our SEL instruction, or weaving digital citizenship concepts into our subject-area classes, there's never been a more important time to do this work in our schools. Common Sense Education's updated Digital Citizenship Curriculum has lessons that tackle the issue of media balance and well-being –- a topic clearly on teens' minds related to social media. And we've added "Hate Speech" as a topic within our Cyberbullying & Digital Drama materials.

For more information, or to read the latest research report in full, visit Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences.

Jeff Knutson

As Senior Producer and Content Strategist for Common Sense Education, Jeff helps creates and publish content for teachers aimed at helping them learn new, innovative, and effective ways to use edtech in the classroom. Prior to his work at Common Sense, Jeff was an editor and classroom teacher. He's an advocate for the creative, thoughtful, and responsible use of technology, and he thrives on sharing his knowledge, experience, and perspectives with others.