I don’t know about you but I’m often reading and hearing adults discussing the state of teens and social media.  Lots of talk, analysis, conjecture, arguments and frustrations expressed by parents about what their teens are doing on social, how they are communicating with each other and how unnerved the parents are that they simply cannot get their kids off of their phones. The teens are rolling their eyes at all of the pleading, grounding and genuine annoyance by grown-ups – clearly they think we don’t get it or them – AT ALL.

This made me curious about the purpose of mobile communication in social circles with teenagers and what they are actually doing. It led me to create a completely unscientific study based on one teen’s feedback.

I crafted a questionnaire and sent it to a close friends 17-year-old daughter who I think represents a normal teen with good grades coming from a good family, an athlete who is social and in the middle of the pack with a group of like-minded friends. I told her I wanted to understand what she and her friends were actually doing on their phones socially. Of course, she didn’t have to tell me the truth but I do believe that teens would actually like to be heard rather than discussed in the presumptuous way we adults can – and I said it would be anonymous.

Some answers were what I expected and a few were harsh to read but when I looked back at my thoughts and behaviors in high school, the same things were done – except we did them face to face – or behind each other’s backs.

My Findings

Texting is the preferred method of communication between friends. No surprise there. Here’s what else I learned from the words of a teenager:

Snapchat and Instagram are the top apps used.

“They aren’t so much for communication as they are for sharing an experience in the form of a picture. Snapchat is an app where you can post photos or videos on your story for 24 hours, or send out pictures and videos individually. To be honest, the main purpose of a Snapchat is showing off cool places that you are, people you are with, and fun things you are doing. It let’s everyone know how much fun you are having and how cool you are. People post Snapchat stories with the intent to make people jealous of what they are doing.”

Instagram is an app where you can upload pictures for all of your followers to see. We would choose Instagram because a lot of kids like myself love to take pictures and share them with their friends. More and more people are getting nicer cameras and GoPros to make the quality of their pictures better. Basically, it is fun to take pictures and then create your Instagram layout the exact way you want. You can make your account private or public, which allows you to control who is allowed to follow you or not. Your followers have the option of “liking” your pictures. This creates an involuntary popularity contest for who can get the most likes.”

An ‘involuntary popularity contest’ – that was a constant subtext in my all-girls private school. A time when an “app” was something you filled out to get into college. The most popular girls (I was not one of them) were the ones that were “liked” the most, right? The cheerleaders, the sporty girls, or the cool stoners.

I went on the ask why she would choose to post on Instagram vs. Snapchat:

“I post Snapchats of cool places and experiences that I wouldn’t necessarily want to post on my Instagram. Snapchat is way more low-key than Instagram in the sense that, where I might spend a lot of time considering if I want to post a picture on Instagram that will remain on the Internet forever, on Snapchat it’s easier to post a picture knowing it is not permanent.”

And Twitter?

“I personally don’t have a Twitter because I did not want another social media account to get attached to, and I don’t really care about the dumb things people tweet about.”

The most interesting part of this to me is the consciousness that posts actually ‘remains on the Internet forever’. Haven’t we all wondered if this generation actually understands that once it’s out there, it’s out there? I was relieved to read this. Then my favorite line….’I don’t really care about the dumb things people tweet about’. Take that Twitter.

Are you selective about who you give your phone number to or who gets access to your social media accounts?

  • People you don’t know: “I won’t give them anything and will block them if they look creepy.”
  • A boy that likes you/you like: “I would let them follow all my accounts and phone number.”
  • A peer that wants to be your friend but maybe you don’t want to be friends: “I would let them follow all my accounts.”

One of the things I hear parents resorting to is taking their kids’ phones away as punishment – added to the long list of ways to be grounded – no TV, no going out with friends or being banished to your room or, the always effective, no sweets for a month. That must be why still to this day when I eat dessert I feel guilty.

For me today I understand the attachment to my mobile phone and the freedom it provides but, since I am too old to be grounded, I wondered what the emotional toll would be on a teenager without their phone.

“When I get my phone taken away, the communication is completely cut off until I see them (my friends) at school. Plans will be made without you because there is no way of informing you otherwise. I don’t use anything else when I don’t have my phone, but I know some of my friends have their iMessage set up on their laptops so they are still able to text.”

What happens when a friend in your group gets THEIR cell phone taken away?

“It is super annoying, and I give up hanging out with them because it is too much work.”

I don’t know what to say to that…take away your kids cell phone and they will be forever banished to a solitary life void of friends? That’s heavy. Give them back their phones now or see them end up on an analysts couch in the future.

Then I asked her to tell me what it would be like if her phone was taken away for (God forbid!) a month . Her response was enlightening and definitely NOT what I expected:

“About a month ago, my friend and I decided to turn our phones off for a week. During school, I realized how often I reach for my phone in class or need it to take pictures of the homework. At home, I even read a book in the time that I would have been on my phone. It was a super nice break because it was during the school week when we didn’t need our phones to make plans. A whole month would be harder especially on the weekends because it would be super hard to make plans. However, it would probably feel really good during the time.”

And what about emotion? I know I have personally used social media (Facebook) to ask for help when I have been feeling down, had a crisis in the family or just generally needed support. It has been invaluable to have people cheer me up, cheer me on and, genuine or not, say they were praying for me and my family. I wondered about teens and how they express their feelings on social.

“I never post my emotions on social media because nobody cares and it makes you look dumb. If I’m upset, I would withdraw from social media to refrain from getting even more upset by seeing places I wasn’t invited.’

There have been many recent studies on young people and the current efficacy of Facebook. Well, here’s some unofficial feedback when I asked if there were any apps she tried recently and didn’t like:

“Facebook. We made one for our run club and will probably delete it because it is so outdated and nobody really uses it anymore.”

Got it. What did I learn from this ‘study’? That this current generation has been raised with a tool created for accessibility and communication. Teenagers are talking to each other in the language of the 21st century. They don’t think to call each other’s “house phone” to see what their friend is doing. That particular tool was not part of their upbringing, it was part of ours. And probably because a parent may answer and that would be super embarrassing.

Also, though I may think the content some teens put up is a little too sexy, revealing or engaging for their age, the reality is that I have no idea what my friends and I would be doing if we were growing up now with all this technology. Snapchat and Instagram are what teenagers use to communicate, and I can only hope that they use it wisely and continue to remember that these words and images ‘remain on the internet forever’. It’s a good reminder for all of us, at whatever age, to not get too comfortable thinking only our circle of friends see what we post.

Lest I judge any teen and their need for their phone, I will say that last Sunday my partner and I were leaving an event about 20 miles from home and wanted to eat. Neither of us had our cells. We stared at each other and had absolutely no idea where to eat OR how to figure out where to eat. Really. So what did we do? We drove home to get our phones. Now THAT’s dependence.

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