It’s lunchtime in a suburban high school in Nashville, Tennessee, and Andrew*, 17, has already sent more than 200 text messages. Assuming he woke up at seven, that’s roughly one text every 90 seconds.
To those far removed from their teen years, such a rate of texting may seem inconceivable. Modern teenage life itself appears alien, or at least alienating. The devices and gadgets that now dominate young peoples’ lives remove them from their friends and family, the story goes, isolating teens in a virtual netherworld. These “digital natives,” it sometimes seems, are more comfortable with technology than they are with each other.
But our research suggests otherwise. In the last decade, we’ve studied how technology affects how teens socialize, how they present themselves, and how they think about issues like gender and privacy. While it’s true that teens incorporate social media into many facets of their lives, and that they face new pressures their parents didn’t—from cyber-bullying to fearmongering over “online predators”—the core elements of high-school life are fundamentally the same today as they were two decades ago: friends, relationships, grades, family, and the future.
Take Andrew’s example. From his perspective, 200 texts by midday makes complete sense, since talking on the phone takes too much time from his packed schedule: he works at the local library, has an internship coordinating a religious mission to Latin America, plays in a band, and is active in his church. Texting has become his lifeline. He texts his boss if he’s going to be late, texts his coworkers to check out what’s happening at work, and texts his friends and his girlfriend, who is away at college. For Andrew, as for so many teens, technology is a means to achieve both practical and social goals.
In our research, we’ve discovered one undeniable fact: Teens communicate with each other. A lot. About everything. Text messages have even replaced passing notes in the hallway (and in class). Teens send a constant stream of updates to their nearest and dearest, weaving an intimate web between themselves and their friends. Texting lets teens chat casually and quickly, unlike a voice call, which most teens see as an interruption. According to the Pew Internet and American Life project, 63% of teenagers exchange text messages every day with people in their lives. Compare that with the 39% of teens who make voice calls, or the 35% who engage face-to-face outside of school. While the teens we interviewed preferred socializing in person, they often found this difficult due to parental restrictions, overscheduled lives, and limited transportation options.
Far from being a source of isolation, the teen’s phone is a tether to loved ones; it is a personal object, a crucial connection. A study by the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda asked one thousand students in ten countries to engage in a 24-hour media fast. The students had no problem giving up TV, newspapers, or magazines. But cutting them off from the Internet made them feel alone and isolated. Across the world, even in places like Uganda and Lebanon, students said that social media is integral to their social lives and their connections with friends.
A key part of this dependence, of course, is Facebook. According to Pew, 80% of American teenagers are on Facebook, a rate borne out by our ethnographic work. In most of the communities we’ve worked in, teens will “friend” virtually everyone they recognize from school, making Facebook less like a collection of friends and more like a town hall meeting. It’s where young people learn the latest gossip, catch up with their peers, publicly reinforce relationships, and turn acquaintances into friends.
And while our data shows that most teens vastly prefer hanging out in person, Facebook is a way for them to stay in touch even when confined to their bedrooms. Mei-Xing, an 18-year-old high-school senior, leaves Facebook open while she studies late into the night because she likes seeing the names of friends pop up in chat windows. Even without talking to them, she feels less lonely knowing they are out there.
Far from being a source of isolation, the teen’s phone is a tether to loved ones; it is a personal object, a crucial connection.
Unfortunately, Facebook can be difficult for many teens, because it requires putting forward an idealized identity while directly confronting harsh realities, like not being invited to a party or finding out that the girl you like is dating someone else. Also, unlike school, Facebook doesn’t stop at the end of the day. The dramas and conflicts from school or practice follow young people home, and often continue into the evening. For youths who struggle with insecurities, Facebook can amplify them. While Pew found that the majority of teens have positive experiences on Facebook, 88% of teens have witnessed mean or cruel behavior in social media.
Privacy is another area in which older generations think teens behave differently, but again, this is not necessarily true. At a recent conference, an afterschool administrator expressed exasperation that the teens in her program were sharing their Facebook passwords, even though they had been told over and over again that it was a security risk. But earlier generations of teens frequently shared their locker combinations with significant others and close friends.
Today’s teens see password-sharing as a sign of trust and as signaling that they have nothing to hide. Folami, 17, says she shares her password with her best friends. “They’re part of my life. And I can trust them and they can trust me.”
Besides Facebook, teen Twitter use has doubled in the last two years, according to Pew. But while many adults use Twitter to boost their professional image or follow breaking news, teens use it for amateur comedy or quote sharing. And since fewer teens use Twitter than Facebook, it feels more intimate. One teen told us, “Facebook is like shouting into a crowd. Twitter is like speaking into a room.”
Teens aren’t just using technology for social purposes. Sites like OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy provide free course materials in a variety of subjects. Although as professors we know how problematic Wikipedia can be, it is still a fantastic first step in researching an enormous variety of subjects.
But learning comes in a variety of forms. Teens who are into anime, fashion, or gaming often join smaller online communities where they can talk about their obsessions with other like-minded young people. In many of these groups, we see teens enthusiastically writing stories, making art, or creating video for the sheer joy of it. These informal learning networks may receive less recognition than high SAT scores, but they can be an extremely effective way for kids to learn useful skills.
In the end, despite technology’s infiltration into almost every area of life, teens—like adults—have the same concerns they always did. Their social world may look different from that of their parents and grandparents, but when hasn’t it? Parents worry about their teens, but when haven’t they?
Teens with strong social support will thrive regardless of whether they are talking to their friends in person, on the phone or through Facebook. And those teens at-risk—due to abuse, drugs, poverty, or mental health issues—are still in desperate need of empathy and resources.
Technology often makes at-risk youth more visible, which creates new concerns, but also introduces new opportunities. The key is in helping young people to feel strong, confident, and capable, regardless of how they’re communicating.