What are today’s U.S. teens feeling and doing? And how do they differ from the teens of a decade ago?
The Grim News
Screen time vs. face-to-face time. Today’s teens spend about half their nearly six daily leisure hours looking at screens—gaming, web-surfing, socializing, or watching shows. Such activity displaces leisure time spent with others, which now averages only an hour and 13 minutes daily (16 minutes less than a decade ago).
Increased depression, self-harm, and suicide. My Social Psychology co-author, Jean Twenge, reports that teen loneliness, depression, and suicide have risen in concert with smart phones and social media use. She notes,
Teens who visit social-networking sites every day but see their friends in person less frequently are the most likely to agree with the statements “A lot of times I feel lonely,” “I often feel left out of things,” and “I often wish I had more good friends.”
Indeed, reports Pew, 3 in 10 teens says they feel tense or nervous every or almost every day, and 7 in 10 see anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers. Other studies confirm that teen happiness and self-esteem have declined, while teen depression, self-harm, and suicide have risen.
The Good News
Sleeping more. The teens’ time diaries found them sleeping just over 9 hours per night (and 11 hours on weekends). Although other studies have found teens more sleep-deprived, these teens reported sleeping 22 minutes more per night than their decade-ago counterparts.
Doing more homework. Teens also are spending more time—16 minutes more per day—on homework, which now averages an hour a day. The increased sleep and homework time is enabled partly by 26 fewer minutes per day in paid employment—fewer teenagers today have jobs.
Minimal pressure for self-destructive behaviors. Relatively few teens feel personally pressured to be sexually active (8 percent), to drink alcohol (6 percent), or to use drugs (4 percent)—far fewer than the 61 percent feeling pressure to get good grades.
The Gendered News
Time use. Do you find it surprising (or not) that girls, compared with boys,
- average 58 fewer daily minutes of screen time,
- spend 21 minutes more on homework,
- average 23 minutes more on grooming and appearance, and
- spend 14 minutes more on helping around the house?
Emotions. Girls (36 percent) are also more likely than boys (23 percent) to report feeling anxious or depressed every or almost every day. But they are more likely each day to feel excited about something studied in school (33 vs. 21 percent). And they are more likely to say they never get in trouble at school (48 vs. 33 percent).
Aspirations. Girls are more likely than boys (68 vs. 51 percent) to aspire to attending a four-year college. And they are less materialistic than boys—with 41 percent of girls and 61 percent of boys reporting that it will be very important to have a lot of money when they grow up.
To sum up, (1) aspects of teen time use and emotions have changed, sometimes significantly. (2) Gender differences persist, though the differences are not static. (3) In this modern media age, adolescence—the years that teens spend morphing from child to adult—come with new temptations, which increase some dangers and decrease others.
What endures is teens’ need to navigate turbulent waters en route to independence and identity, while sustaining the social connections that will support their flourishing.