New Findings: Teens Use Social Media To Get Away From Grown Ups

The Macarthur Foundation has been funding research into teenagers’ use of digital media since 2008, and if you’re not tracking their findings you’re missing out. This is important, nuanced, evidence-based stuff that anybody who works with teenagers should grapple with.

Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living And Learning with New Media came out in 2009, and I eagerly recruited a couple of high school students to help me teach it to the adults in our church. Danah Boyd’s It’s ComplicatedThe Social Lives of Networked Teens followed in 2014. I taught that to grown ups too (next to Douglas Rushkoff, danah boyd is my biggest brain crush).

Now here comes another book out of all that research: The Class: Living And Learning in The Digital Age by Sonia Livingstone and Julian Sefton-Green. I ordered a copy today and will jump at the first chance to get into it with grown ups.

The authors followed 13-year-olds for a year to observe their use of digital media. Their findings throw cold water on alarmist fears about teenagers addicted to smartphones who are unable to sustain face-to-face conversations. Livingstone wrote a little summary here, but I’ll tell you a couple of her most promising insights now.


First, teens’ use of social media is less about the impulse to be “always on” than it is about exercising some agency over their relationships with adults. If was about being on all the time they would be far more responsive to digital media demands being made by teachers and other adults. Messaging is a tool for disconnecting from adults, not for interacting with them (my refusal to use Snapchat is vindicated!)

Second, teens prefer face-to-face interaction. They seek it out, and they prolong it for as long as possible when they have it. They may be interacting with phones when they’re together, but being together is the substance of what they most want to be doing.

This is important work, and I can’t wait to read through it all. Big ups to Cory Doctorow and BoingBoing for their coverage of it.


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