Here’s what teens are really doing on their smartphones


If it seems as if teenagers are spending a lot of time connected to their screens, that’s because they are. About a quarter of their day, to be exact.

As you might have seen in Tracy Lien’s first look at the study, the average teen from 13 to 18 years old spends about nine hours a day consuming media — and that’s outside of their school and homework. Kids ages 8 to 12, or tweens, are spending about six hours in front of screens. They’re watching shows, playing games, connecting on social media and listening to music — sometimes all at the same time.

This snapshot of our tweens’ and teens’ screen lives comes courtesy of Common Sense Media’s census of media use, a survey that details the habits and preference of American kids today. They surveyed 2,658 8- to 18-year-olds nationally in the first quarter of this year.


“The media-use census provides parents, educators and the media industry with an excellent overview of what kids are doing today and how we can make the most of the media and technology in their lives,” said James P. Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, nonprofit organization that helps families navigate media and technology.

Even with all of the newer format options — like online videos, mobile gaming and social media — kids are still most often watching TV and listening to music. Just not exactly the same way mom and pop did when they were kids.

Mobile devices that put the power of portable media in our pockets account for 41% of all screen time among tweens and 46% among teens. But they weren’t all using these devices the same way.

On any given day, 34% of tweens and 23% of teens spend 2 hours or less with screen media, while 11% of tweens and 26% of teens spend more than 8 hours with screens.

Whether on computers, tablets or smartphones, 39% of teens’ digital screen time is devoted to watching, listening, or reading, 25% to playing games or browsing the Web, 26% to social media and video-chatting.

Very little time, only 3%, was focused on content creation such as writing, coding or making digital art or music, according to the report.


Somewhat surprising was the role of social media in their screen time. Although social media is an integral part of most teens’ lives, they’re kind of “meh” about it. Only 36% of teens say they enjoy using social media “a lot” compared to 73% who enjoy listening to music “a lot,” and 45% watching TV.

“The diversity of media-use patterns among youth is astounding,” said report author Vicky Rideout, senior consultant to Common Sense Media, “but it’s interesting to see that through it all, TV and music continue to be the media of choice — and that social networking lags significantly behind.”

There were also gender divides. Essentially, boys are from X-Box and girls are from Instagram, the study showed. Teen boys named console video games as their favorite media activity way more than girls did — 27% of boys compared with 2% of girls.

Why? It could be because the most popular console games have more male than female lead characters and focus on war, violence, or mainstream sports — topics that appeal to boys more than girls, according to Common Sense.

On the other hand, girls spend more time on social media and reading than boys, according to the survey.

Common Sense offers this takeaway: Parents of gaming girls — and boys — can look for titles with diverse characters and game communities that are welcoming to all players. Parents can make sure their non-Instagramming gamers are still finding ways to connect with friends, even perhaps through games, and can look for books that appeal to their son’s specific interests to encourage them to read.


The divide of dollars was very apparent in this study in terms of access to the tools of tech, despite recent declarations to the contrary.

Tweens and teens from low-income families have far less access to computers, tablets and smartphones. For example, 92% of teens whose family income is over $100,000 a year have a laptop at home, compared with 54% of teens whose family makes less than $35,000 a year.

Black tweens and teens report spending substantially more time with media than white or Hispanic kids, the report said. Black youth reported spending an average of more than 11 hours a day consuming media, with their white and Hispanic counterparts spending an average of 8.5 hours and almost 9 hours, respectively.

Multitasking is the new normal when it comes to homework time. Most teens listen to music while doing their work, but many also watch TV (51%), use social media (50%) and text (60%).

And, no, they don’t think it’s a problem. Most, in fact, think multitasking has little impact on the quality of their work. The jury’s still out on this one. But there’s evidence suggesting that multitasking makes it harder to retain information, according to Common Sense.

“As a parent and educator, there’s clearly more work to be done around the issue of multitasking,” Steyer said.


This glimpse into the digital world of tweens and teens suggests that our kids are spending more time consuming media than connecting with their parents and even their teachers. What the report doesn’t do is put a value on the content children are consuming.

Doing battle over tablets and smartphones with your kids? Let’s exchange tips and tricks: @mmaltaisla