Social media use rising, but digital divide persists

The majority of teens ages 13 to 17 report owning their own smartphones (89%) and using social media multiple times per day (70%), according to a new survey by Common Sense Media. That’s double the percentages reported in 2012, when only 41% of respondents reported owning a smartphone and 34% reported using social media multiple times a day.

As teens’ use of social media has risen, their preference for in-person communication has gone down. In 2012, 49% of respondents said that in-person interaction was their favorite way to communicate with friends, with texting as their second favorite at 33%. Although the preference for texting only rose slightly, to 35%, in-person communication dipped to 32%, making texting the preferred communication method. Social media showed a greater increase in popularity, from 7% to 16%, but it remains in third place, with video chatting following close behind.

This increase in social media and smartphone use should not lead us to assume that all teenage students have full access to technology, however. The ACT Center for Equity in Learning surveyed students who took the ACT in 2017 and found that 15% had access to one or no digital devices at home. Of the students with access to just one device (14% of respondents), 85% came from a background ACT considers underserved, meaning that their combined parental income was $36,000 or less per year, their parents did not attend college, or the student was a member of a minority race or ethnicity.

For 56% of these students, the sole device they could access was a smartphone, making it possible for them to access social media, while still having difficulty completing certain types of homework assignments. In addition, nearly half (46%) of students with access to only one device at home had to rely on a cellular data plan, which means that some would hit their data use limits when attempting to complete assignments.

Sources: Rideout, V. & Robb, M.B. (2018). Social media, social life: Teens reveal their experiences. San Francisco, CA: Common Sense Media.

Moore, R., Vitale, D., & Stawinoga, N. (2018). The digital divide and educational equity: A look at students with very limited access to electronic devices at home. Iowa City, IA: ACT.

TERESA PRESTON (tpreston@pdkintl.org) is managing editor, content, of Phi Delta Kappan.

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