When I was growing up, the internet was an incredibly helpful resource for me. No one really worried what teens were doing on their phones, myself included, because the internet wasn't at our fingertips. Not yet. So, while at home, I was drawn to platforms like Tumblr and LiveJournal, where I could ask anonymous questions and connect to a network of like-minded teenagers around the world. From questions about my changing body, to my sexuality, to how to calmly communicate with my mother when everything she seemed to do made me angry, the internet was a place I went to sort through and better understand myself as a maturing young woman.
When I was navigating the more contentious and isolating moments of my development, it was 2005, and the internet was far less developed than it is now. While we posted on websites such as Myspace, LiveJournal, and Tumblr we were sitting in front of a (probably large and bulky) computer, since our cell phones didn’t have internet access yet. So wandering, exploring, and using the internet was inherently restricted to after school hours, eliminating the possibility of us being attached to our devices at all hours of the day. Even Facebook, at the time, was limited to users that could provide a high school email address. This would be a rule that would change in 2006, when Facebook opened itself up to any user who was at least 13 and had an email address.
Now, in 2018, I watch children as young as 5 post, browse, compare, and devour media instantaneously and constantly. Common Sense Media reports that the average tween spends six hours consuming media, while 50 percent of teenagers report they feel “addicted to their mobile devices” and spend over one-third of their entire lives looking at them.
That’s why I asked teenagers all over the world to tell me all about what they actually do on their phones all day, with the hope that we could all better understand how to support children in this social-first world. And as you’ll read, similarly the way I used the internet when I was growing up, teenagers use their phone to make sense of their experiences, their identity, and connect to each other and the larger world.
“Sarahah and TBH are really big right now with my friends, so I use those apps a lot. We also use House Party when we do our homework, and then iMessage constantly all day.”
Writer’s note: Sarahah and TBH are anonymous messaging boards that allow users to write and reply to each other. According to Pew Research Center, 11 percent of cell-phone owning teens use anonymous messaging platforms.
“When I go on social media, I have a bad habit of comparing myself to people I find attractive, and usually ends up making me feel bad about myself. However, when I'm feeling good about myself, I might share something and get positive responses from my friends which makes me feel good, and I'll also be more likely to comment nice things on other people's posts. My phone use also makes me feel like I have a stronger identity, and allows me to adapt and adjust it. I can speak my mind, and engage in meaningful conversations with others, which helps me grow and change my views/beliefs.”
“I use my phone for a lot of different things, from meeting new friends on Instagram, to looking at places I want to travel around the world. I think that’s why I love my iPhone so much and am so addicted to it. It gives me a small window into life outside of my neighborhood. It can also be really distracting though. I feel like I constantly need to check it or I’ll miss out on something huge. I don’t think it’s good for my study habits either. I know my mom gets stressed about how much I use my phone. We fight about my phone use a lot.”
Writer’s note: Common Sense Media finds that 72 percent of teens feel a need to attend to the apps on their phone immediately, with 78 percent of teens checking their phone hourly. Additionally, 74b percent of parents feel that their child is distracted by their device during their time together, with one third of parent claiming that they fight about phone use with their child on a daily basis.
“When I was 13, I used to literally Google what my sexuality was. I took quizzes and tests online to help me figure out my identity. I live in the South, so through the internet and online quizzes I was able to find people that looked and identified more similarly to me. My phone not only answered many questions I had about my sexuality, but about sex education too. No one taught me in depth sex education beyond abstinence, so when it came to sex ed, my phone was there for me in a way that my parents and school weren’t.”
“I’ll YouTube almost anything on my phone. I go to YouTube for current events, music, funny videos, and games. I also love watching makeup tutorials, and funny series. Also, memes are everything to me and my friends right now. We tag each other to say ‘I love you’ or ‘you’ll be OK’ or to commensurate a bad day or talk about what we ate for dinner.”
“Well, I produce music, and most of the time if I can't figure out how to do something with the software I'm using, I’ll use Google to figure it out. Other than that, my favorite apps are definitely Snapchat or Instagram, because they're a great way to promote my music.”
“I use my phone primarily for Instagram, but also to tag my friends in memes on Facebook. I love that memes make me feel connected to my friends even when we’re not hanging out in real life, and Instagram keeps me updated on all my friends lives. I also use Snapchat, Sarahah, Wishbone, and TBH."
Writer’s note: Surprisingly, Grace was of the few teens that even mentioned the platform, Facebook. Additionally, EMarketer confirms that most teens are turning away from Facebook in favor of Snapchat and Instagram.
“When I’m on my phone I will usually check my emails, text my friends, watch Netflix, and listen to music. I don’t have social media so there isn’t much to do on my phone. I usually get information such as locations of places, weird questions I want answered, or maybe answers to tests I can’t figure out. I also use an online dictionary and thesaurus when I’m doing my homework.”
“I use my phone a lot throughout the day, but I wouldn’t consider myself addicted to it. I could go without my phone because I don’t rely on it to do daily functions. However, I’d just be very bored without memes and/or funny videos.”
“I use my phone throughout the day, and I would say my anxiety has definitely increased because of it. Having the ability to see where all your friends are and what they’re doing at all hours in the day increases the anxiety of being excluded.”
“I use my phone for Instagram the most. Sadly, I get really competitive about likes and comments, and actually spent a lot of time thinking about my two Instagram feeds. I wish this wasn’t the case, but I think of all the apps out there, Instagram is the most consuming and important to all my friends and me. I have both a rinsta [a real Instagram], and a finsta [fake Instagram]. I let my parents follow my rinsta even though it’s private, but they don’t know about my finsta because I post way more realistic and emotional posts on there.”
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.