It’s A Smartphone Life: More Than Half Of U.S. Children Now Have One

Just over half of children in the United States — 53 percent — now own a smartphone by the age of 11. And 84 percent of teenagers now have their own phones, immersing themselves in a rich and complex world of experiences that adults sometimes need a lot of decoding to understand.

These stats come from a new, nationally representative survey of media use among children ages 8-18, by Common Sense Media, which has been tracking this since 2003.

The findings highlight the myriad ways young people are using their devices. Just ask Ashley Mingo, a junior at the Hudson High School of Learning Technologies in New York City.

“Pinterest — that’s where I look for drawing inspiration and sometimes clothes inspiration when I’m leaving for school,” the 16-year-old explains as she gives a reporter a tour of her smartphone. “Tumblr for writing and reading, and Snapchat to post selfies and see what people say. And Webtoon to read comics and see how comics are formed and how creators got from their beginnings to now.”

The home screen is a shot of her favorite K-pop music star, from a group called Stray Kids.

She says she discovered K-pop while watching a “multi-animator project” — often a music video that’s animated collaboratively by many different people. “And I was like, this song sounds really cool! What is this from? And then I ended up Googling them … and it went downhill from there!” she says with a huge grin.

She names some of her favorite bands: “Stray Kids, BTS, Exo, AB6IX,Twice, Dreamcatcher, Red Velvet … ” She keeps up with her favorite groups on Instagram and Snapchat, where she’s in a huge fan group chat — she knows only a few of the people in real life.

Mingo appeared as a teen representative on a panel in New York City to announce the findings of the new report. It asked children to self-report how often they did an activity, how much they like it, and how much time they spent doing it “yesterday.” The totals? More than 7 hours a day for teens, and nearly 5 hours a day for “tweens” ages 8-12.

One caveat: The survey didn’t fully account for multitasking — which is a pretty common habit. So an hour spent playing a video game while texting with your friends could be counted on the survey as two hours of media use. However, Vicky Rideout, lead author of the report, points out that screen use also commonly happens during commuting, mealtimes, chores, socializing or other non-screen activities.

Ashley Mingo says she gets a lot out of her phone. But she sees a downside too. “Most of the time, because I’m on it so much, I completely forget about sleep and then I’m like, I have to wake up 2 hours later, I really should go to sleep!”

Here are some other highlights of the report, paired with context from our other reporting:

  • As it has for decades, video viewing beats all other screen media activity — averaging 2 hours, 52 minutes per day for teens and 2 and a half hours for tweens.
  • Online video viewing has doubled — and most children say it is their most enjoyable online activity. There is a corresponding decrease in watching old-fashioned TV, whether broadcast, or time-shifted onto a digital recorder.
  • About 1 in 5 children has a phone by age 8. There could be a silver lining to children getting their first phones closer to elementary school than high school. Scholars like Jordan Shapiro and Stacey Steinberg have argued that parents need to model healthy social media use with younger children, and let them participate. And parenting expert Ana Homayoun says that parents can help establish healthier habits with the first phone by taking a heavier hand while children are younger — by checking the phone periodically, actively coaching kids on social media etiquette and handing the phone over only at certain designated times.
  • Young people from families making $35,000 or less a year spend much more time with screen media — nearly two hours per day more when compared with families making more than $100,000. Vicky Rideout notes that gap has been pretty persistent over time. “Entertainment media is an affordable alternative to after-school programs or private piano lessons,” she says. And there can be opportunities for “informal learning” — with the right guidance.
  • There are big gender differences, particularly over video games. Almost three-fourths of boys say they enjoy playing video games “a lot,” whereas fewer than 1 in 4 girls say the same. Video games are the online activity most associated with problematic overuse or addiction.
  • The favorite media-based activity among girls is listening to music — like Ashley Mingo’s K-pop faves.
  • And girls also report liking social media much more than boys do. Seven in 10 teen girls use social media every day. Compared with other online activities, social media use is more associated with anxiety, depression, cyberbullying and self-image issues.
  • African-American and Hispanic teens have distinctive patterns of use. Each group reports spending more than two hours a day on social media, whereas for white teens it’s about an hour and a half. (Mingo, who is African-American, would qualify as a high user of social media between Pinterest, Snapchat and Tumblr). They also report enjoying social media more than white teens. Other research has suggested that people of color are more likely to value social media as a means of getting involved in politics, that youth of color follow more celebrities and public figures than white teens do, and that social media is sometimes a path to political participation and civic engagement.
  • Screens are a bigger-than-ever part of schoolwork. Nearly 6 in 10 teens do homework on a computer every day. This can be a problem given the temptation to multitask. It’s also an equity issue. Although lower-income teens spend more time consuming entertainment media, they are less likely to have access to laptops, and they spend more time doing homework on mobile phones instead.
  • Teens report spending only 3 percent of their screen time on creative pursuits like writing, or making art, or music — outside of homework or school projects. But some researchers, like Emily Weinstein at Harvard, and Mimi Ito at the University of California, Irvine, note that social media platforms like TikTok, Snapchat or Instagram can be platforms for creative expression in ways that aren’t necessarily captured by a survey like this. It also may be that teens use their consumption to inform and inspire their creative expression, like Mingo, an aspiring animator, does.
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