Editor’s note: This story is based on data from the 2023 American Family Survey.
When Kipp Sorensen and Aja Kayser married 15 years ago, they agreed on a set of rules for their kids’ phones. No phones at the dinner table. No phones in bedrooms.
But those rules didn’t seem to be enough. Their two oldest kids were obsessed with their phones, glancing at them constantly mid-conversation. The couple worried that phones were warping their children’s attention span, making it hard for them to concentrate enough to even read a book.
So the Sandy, Utah couple decided to take even more drastic measures. Their third kid wouldn’t get a phone until he was 16.
“It backfired,” Sorensen says. Her son, now 19, secretly got his own phone that his parents couldn’t monitor.
A generation ago, parents might have listed their greatest concerns as drinking and driving or premarital sex. Today, according to a new survey, overuse of technology is the top concern, behind mental health.
Those findings are part of the ninth annual American Family Survey, a nationally representative look at American life through the lens of attitudes about relationships, finances, policies and current affairs. The survey is conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute.
According to the survey, which polled 3,000 adults in the U.S., roughly two-thirds of parents with teens 13-17 say they’re doing something to monitor their children’s social media, with about 40 percent saying they put content restrictions on social media. About a fourth restrict private messaging, private accounts, contacts and screen time. More than a third don’t do anything.
Jeremy C. Pope, a professor of political science at BYU and one of the study authors, says most parents are worried social media is causing harm to their children.
He says the survey, which he’s co-authored from its beginning, was created in part to look at policies that could address public needs and wants. “To be honest, I’m just a little bit skeptical that the public is going to be able to land on some kind of social media policy that they really like because whatever the problems are with your kids and social media, they’re probably specific to your kids,” he says. “That’s not to say the problem is unheard of for other people, but your kids probably need a bespoke solution it is unlikely the government can provide.”
The bottom line: “People wish social media was a little bit better, but they don’t exactly know how to fix it,” Pope says.
“What the public wants is the sweet spot, the Aristotelian mean, just enough social media so that my kid is normal and happy, but not unhappy because of looking at the wrong things.”
Because Utah was the first state to pass legislation limiting teens’ social media use, including consequences (effective next March), I asked some Utah parents what they are — or aren’t — doing to oversee their children’s social media.
Joanie Edgeworth says her 13-year-old son is not allowed to be on social media, while her daughter, 16, has chosen not to because she doesn’t want the anxiety that can come with it. “If at some point she chooses to get an account, we would set boundaries together,” says the Herriman mom, who notes their phones have down time and time limits.
Edgeworth says she and her husband Ben are wary of social media, partly because it can be used to interact with strangers and partly because of reported links to anxiety and depression. She said she feels lucky their son hasn’t pushed to use social media.
Erica and Lance Stewart made decisions about social media for their five kids and have talked about them with their older kids, 12 and 10. The Draper couple already broke the news to their son that he won’t get a smartphone until he’s old enough to drive. They won’t allow social media while their kids are minors, they decided. “When they’re older, they can choose it on their own,” Erica Stewart said.
The YouGov survey found that nearly 75 percent of parents worry about the type of content their kids will come across on social media channels. Two-thirds also worry about what their child might post. But the survey found that many parents aren’t doing much to address those concerns. “Intriguingly, about a third of parents are letting their children run wild on social media, which seems a little too free range to me,” Pope says. “And I assume these are good parents because I think most people try to be good parents and do due diligence. They probably just aren’t sure what would make a difference.”
Don Grant, a Los Angeles-area psychologist, author and researcher who specializes in tech’s impact on mental health, says today’s parents are the “parent pioneers,” encountering a challenge no previous generation of parents even faced, without any training or even understanding of the long-term effects of social media use. He counts himself among the “digitally dazed and confused” parent cohort.
Among survey findings:
• Ten percent of parents say they check their children’s social media activity daily, compared to 28.9 percent who check about weekly. Another 15.4 percent say they check less than once a month.
• Nearly a quarter — 23.3 percent – say they never check their child’s social media activity.
• Black and Hispanic parents are more apt to check daily, at 14.1 percent and 13.2 percent, compared to white parents at 8.8 percent.
Parents with minor teen children were asked what apps their kids can access. Instagram was No. 1 (65.8 percent), followed by TikTok (62.7 percent), YouTube (61.2 percent), Facebook (57 percent), Snapchat (51 percent), X (formerly Twitter, 30.6 percent), Pinterest (15.9 percent) and BeReal (4.3 percent), while 3.5 percent say they aren’t sure.
Just over two-thirds of parents with teens say they follow them on social media. Black parents, those with at most a high school diploma and political independents were the most apt to follow their teens. Moderates (70.3 percent) and liberals (68.6 percent) were somewhat more likely to say they follow their kids on social media than conservatives (62.9 percent). Pope thinks all the numbers might be inflated because parents don’t want to admit they don’t do much.
“Parent pioneers” have been placed in charge of social media’s custody and care without any training, understanding of it or experience in what they’re trying to guide.
“I wholeheartedly believe that parents want to protect their kids from any online risks and are not just ‘lazily’ avoiding it all,” said Grant, who also chairs the American Psychological Association’s Device Management and Intelligence Committee. But navigating control of social media has for many been “a frustrating, futile and impossible task. So we just didn’t bother to really figure it all out, didn’t realize the risk and left the kids literally and figuratively to their own devices until the serious and real consequences of social media use began to emerge.”
Kayser and Sorensen have used tech itself to provide limits, giving their younger children Gabb phones and watches to call or text (Gabb phones have no access to social media). They don’t allow their kids to use TikTok and chose a private school in part because it doesn’t allow phones, so their kids don’t feel that pressure from classmates to use them.
They told me they may sound like “extreme parents” and they know their children may someday circumvent their rules, but they don’t want their kids to determine their self-worth based on likes.
By overwhelming margins, parents do talk to their kids about online safety — including all of the Utah parents I interviewed. In the survey, those numbers are above 90 percent whether you look by race, income, education attainment, religious involvement or political ideology. Most often they talk about online predators, followed by personal information and privacy, pornography, bullying and cybersecurity.
Melanie MacDonald and her husband Jeff have five kids and the family divides time between Midvale, Utah, and Edgewater, Florida. The kids came home from school in the pandemic and are still home-schooled. The oldest daughter has Instagram and TikTok. Her younger brother has Snapchat. MacDonald says her daughter chafed some at restrictions. “We’re kind of worried because as much as we’ve taught them, there might be a point where maybe they get into things to spite us,” she said. “But I do think my children have good heads on their shoulders and would know if they encountered a danger. I think they would talk to us.”
She has their phone access codes, but not app logins. Still, her children know she can go through their phone’s apps. And she’s serious about keeping her kids safe: She follows organizations that reveal how predators create profiles as if they are children. So while she doesn’t want to overstep and respects her children, “I am protective,” she adds.
Around half of those surveyed say they talk about inaccurate or misleading information and about the amount of time spent on social media. Just 37.2 percent say they address managing emotions related to social media. That’s not true of MacDonald, who worries primarily about how her kids feel about themselves in comparison to other kids. She’s convinced much of the anxiety and depression epidemic plaguing America’s youths comes from social media and smartphones.
“I think one of the biggest issues is the idea kids get from likes. It becomes a measuring tool of their value. That’s most damaging,” Sorensen says. “The system is built for kids to care so much … the repercussions are unknown. I think it’s going to be such an issue.”
He says he and his wife worried about how much time the kids wasted on their phones and what it stole from free play and other activities. Now they’re more worried their children will believe social media determines their value. Sorensen wonders if anyone, “craving 10,000 likes, will feel appreciated by one person in a real relationship.”
When the survey asked adults to pick up to three of the most challenging issues teens face from a curated list, overuse of technology was No. 2 (39 percent), behind only mental health and suicidality (40 percent).
The survey also asked about government regulation and if there should be the right to sue big tech for harm. The answers condense to “I’m not sure,” Pope says.
Big tech companies like Amazon, Google, Meta and others have banded together as an industry group, NetChoice, to square off in court against state regulatory attempts. NetChoice recently sued California to block the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, calling it a First Amendment violation. A district judge granted a preliminary injunction while the case wends its way through the court.
“What the public wants is the sweet spot, the Aristotelian mean, just enough social media so that my kid is normal and happy, but not unhappy because of looking at the wrong things,” Pope says. “That’s just really hard to get.”
More than two-thirds of those surveyed at least partially support government regulations that require social media companies to enforce age restrictions, while 7.3 percent oppose it; the others are neutral. Only 38.4 percent say parents should be allowed to sue and claim damages against social media companies on behalf of children claiming they were harmed.
That seeming ambivalence was shared by the parents I interviewed. Joanie Edgeworth feels the platforms should provide ways for parents to monitor their kids online. But she doesn’t see how they can provide total control once a parent hands a kid a smartphone. That’s why “I choose to lock down,” she says, noting her kids can ask, but she’ll decide. “I choose to protect the innocence and growth mindset of my kids. Protecting them from being a slave to a phone is a goal of mine.”
Erica Stewart agrees making a lawsuit stick would be hard. “On one hand, that parent did provide the computer or phone or whatever. You could get down deep in the rabbit hole pointing fingers at each other and I don’t think it will work.”
To Sorensen, “The root of the problem is we outsource parenting to organizations and tech. It’s always someone else’s fault.”
Grant believes parents should “learn everything they can about the people, places, things and platforms with which their children are interacting online” and discuss any concerns. “You might be surprised to learn that many kids in fact have a love-hate — or even just hate-hate — relationship with it,” he says.
Perhaps contradictorily, Pope tells me if you ask if people approve of social media companies, “60-70 percent do. As someone who studies politics, that’s a pretty high number relative to many other institutions in public life.”
The good news, Pope adds, is most people’s kids are OK. Negative effects tend to be in subsets of people who “really kind of lose themselves in it.”