Tweens, Teens, and Screens: What Our New Research Uncovers

Michael Robb, Common Sense Media, November 2, 2015

By taking a “census” of kids’ media use, Common Sense’s new study quantifies screen use, identifies unique types of users, and uncovers patterns that could spark improvements in content, access, and learning. 

For today’s tweens and teens, technology is part of the fabric of everyday life. They’re watching TV on lots of devices and using smartphones and tablets to maximum advantage — texting, researching, sharing, connecting — and generally causing lots of hand-wringing among parents who don’t know how much is too much. As parents, we want to find ways to use media to support healthy development, learning, and community-building. But we can’t begin to make sense of what these technological changes mean for kids until we understand what’s being used and for how long and how kids feel about technology and media.

That’s why we’re pleased to release a new report, the Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Tweens, which paints a more complete picture of how tweens and teens are using media. Some stats aren’t surprising: On average, tweens (age 8 to 12) and teens (age 13 to 18) use many different devices and consume tremendous amounts of media. Other findings push us to rethink our assumptions about kids’ lives. For example, tweens and teens use a lot of social media, but not many actually enjoy it.

Here are more findings:

  • It’s not your imagination — media use is off the charts. Teens use an average of nine hours of entertainment media per day, and tweens use an average of six hours, not including time spent using media for school or homework. Of that, tweens average more than four and a half hours of screen media use a day and teens more than six and a half hours.
  • There is a wide diversity in screen media use. On any given day, 34 percent of tweens and 23 percent of teens spend two hours or less with screen media, while 11 percent of tweens and 26 percent of teens spend more than eight hours.
  • Low-income kids lack access. Kids growing up in lower-income homes are far less likely to have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones than their wealthier peers, but when they do have access, they’re more likely to spend more time on their devices.
  • Boys’ and girls’ media preferences are very different. Teen boys average 56 minutes a day playing video games, compared to girls’ seven minutes; and teen girls spend 40 minutes more a day than boys on social media (1:32 vs. 52 minutes).
  • Social media use is big — but maybe not super fun. Social media is an integral part of most teens’ lives (45 percent use it “every day”), but only 36 percent say they enjoy using social media “a lot,” compared with 73 percent who enjoy listening to music and 45 percent who enjoy watching TV “a lot.”
  • Everyone can be a maker, but not many are. The vast majority of kids’ engagement with media consists of consuming media, with only a small portion devoted to creating content.

The census also identifies distinct types of media users with different patterns of use. They include Heavy Viewers, Light Users, Social Networkers, Video Gamers, Mobile Gamers, Gamers/Computer Users, and Readers. The recognition of these new user profiles can help parents understand that there’s no such thing as an “average media user” and that kids’ media use may actually be a reflection of deeper needs (for example, to connect with others or learn a new skill).

With the release of the census, Common Sense looks forward to advancing the national conversation about the role of media in young people’s lives and helping parents, educators, and policy makers understand how media can be used to support children’s healthy development.

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