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Teens and tech: New report sees differences in usage depending on family structure

Kids living with both parents spend 2 hours less on digital technology daily than other children

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Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

Kids who live with both their own parents use social media and digital technology roughly two hours less a day than their peers who live in stepfamilies or single-parent households. And family structure could also be an important help or hindrance when it comes to enforcing rules around electronic device use.

That’s according to a new report from the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University and the Institute for Family Studies, released Monday, that finds enforcing the rules around technology falls to parents, but the challenges “may be greater for mothers and fathers in some family types than in others.”

Technology is everywhere, but how it’s used can have ramifications, experts say, including the mental health of adolescents and teens. Depression, for instance, has been linked to excessive use of social media.

According to the report, called “Teens and Tech,” youths estimate they use digital media an average of just over 10 hours a day. That includes social media, gaming, online shopping, video chatting and texting — but it doesn’t include TV-watching time. The study, which was based on a survey of 1,600 tweens and teens ages 11 to 18 in fifth through 12th grade, was conducted in May of 2022, fielded by Ipsos for the two institutes.

While the hours youths spend on digital media represents an estimate by the youths and likely includes multitasking, such as checking texts while doing homework, the figure is “staggering,” said Wendy Wang, the Institute for Family Studies’ director of research and one of the report co-authors.

Those teens and tweens living with both biological parents spent about nine hours a day on digital media, compared to closer to 11 hours for others. The difference based on family structure is especially noticeable when it comes to time gaming and texting.

Though there are differences based on family structure, “Pretty much all families struggle with tech use,” said Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and the author of the book, “iGen,” who is known for research on kids and digital media use.

How teens, tweens use tech

The report cites numbers from Pew Research Center showing that 95% of teens between ages 13 and 17 have access to a smartphone. Further, between 2009 and 2017, the share of eighth graders on social media rose from 48% to 78%, while the number of hours high school students spent online doubled. And despite social media bans for preteens under the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which is supposed to keep those younger than 13 off social media, large numbers of children 12 and under do use social media.

In the Family Studies/Wheatley survey, 43% of teens in intact families said their parents have set clear media expectations, compared to 35% of those in single-parent families and 29% of teens in stepfamilies.

As for who sets the screen-time rules and monitors use, 70% said moms do. That number is even higher, 80%, in single-parent homes and among stepfamilies.

The report says stably married parents tend to have more resources and more consistency in their relationship with their children, so they might be more likely to succeed in “guiding and limiting tech use.”

The report found that teens in stepfamilies spent slightly more time on social media and online than those living in single-parent households. While the survey didn’t show cause, Wang said she suspects that though stepfamilies include two adult parent figures, the relationships are “a little more complex.” She said a child might be less inclined to listen to a stepparent and a stepparent might not be in a position to discipline a stepchild or set limits. “There are probably some mixed messages, and it’s harder for them to know what to do.”

According to the study, “All these factors appear to play a role in explaining why our most vulnerable youth — those in nonintact families — spend almost two hours more on screens each day and are more likely to suffer the associated negative effects of depression, loneliness and more dissatisfaction with life. In this first study to explore how adolescents use technology and its links to emotional welfare vary by family structure, those most vulnerable to excessive media use are also the least likely to get the help they need to regulate their use.”

Adults and even older children can find some benefits from being on social media, she said. A 16-year-old might be introduced in a practical way to political engagement, for instance. Adults might find useful collaboration — Twenge said that’s how she and one of her coauthors found each other for this study, in fact. “But for 10-year-olds, there are no benefits,” she added.

“My biggest worry is about this generation’s mental health issues — not just about emotion, but about thinking. And about very strong negativity in the country as a whole,” said Twenge. “A lot of it comes from social media — negative, toxic material. I guess if you post online that everything is great, no one is going to engage with you.”

Bending the rules

Twenge also worries about the “sheer number of hours” digital apps take in kids’ lives, creating “less time to sleep, to get exercise, to interact with families and friends face to face,” not even counting other potential problems like how easy it can be for adult strangers to contact children online, Twenge said.

She told the Deseret News she was “struck by the number of fifth and sixth graders using social media even though it’s not legal for them to do so; they have to be 13.”

She noted lots of parents probably give permission and social media is billed as a place to communicate that’s safe for kids. “It’s likely not true, but that’s certainly the way it’s being advertised.”

Even among kids who said their parents explicitly told them they can’t use social media, “a high percentage did anyway,” Twenge said.

And in some families, parental use of digital media is also an issue: Fifteen percent of the teens and tweens surveyed said their parents use their phones or other digital devices “almost constantly” — including while they’re talking to others, at meals or during family events. That doesn’t vary much across family structures. Extremely high use of tech by parents was cited by about 14% of teens in intact families, 17% of teens in single-parent families and 12% of teens in stepfamilies.

Wang noted it’s probably harder for parents to enforce limits if they can’t manage their own use of digital technology.

Paring back

  • Among the recommendations for cutting down on digital technology use:
    Keep electronic devices out of kids’ bedrooms after bedtime.
  • Do not let those younger than 13 have social media accounts — and think about putting it off to between ages 16 and 18.
  • Delay getting your child a smartphone until 16 or even 18.
  • Set a limit on the amount of time a child can spend on digital media.
  • Look for nondigital ways your children and their friends can interact. “Research suggests real-time communication one-on-one or in small groups (including video chat or while gaming) is healthier than using social media,” the report authors write.
  • “Team up” with like-minded families.

Wang said she hope that teens themselves will become aware of the issues — and the risk posed by too much time on digital devices. This report is not only speaking to parents, but to young adults and teens, too, she said. “Some of them are depressed, and I feel like they might be looking for solutions, as well.”

The study’s other authors are Jenet Erickson, a fellow of both institutes and an associate professor in religious education and in the School of Family Life at BYU; and Brad Wilcox, a fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.