This is the fourth story in a four-part on how to find the safest places on the internet for kids.
Parents might not like to admit it, but teens and young adults have a unique perspective on using the internet. Many of them belong to the first generation — so-called iGen — to grow up with a smartphone in their house, or their hand.
They may have little to no memory of what it means to go through everyday life without constant distractions. They know what it's like to build and sustain friendships entirely on a digital device. They've watched social media give people a collective voice where none existed before. In short, they probably know the internet's peril and promise better than anyone.
That's why we wanted to hear directly from younger users, between the ages of 14 and 22, about their experiences online as part of our series on the safest places on the internet for kids. Since the series urges parents to expand their definition of online safety beyond the well-known threats of strangers and bullies to include a child's emotional well-being, we were particularly interested in how younger users perceived the relationship between their internet use and happiness.
So we reached out to readers on Facebook and Twitter with a brief survey about their experiences. The results, which represent an anecdotal glimpse into these dynamics rather than findings from a nationally representative, scientific survey, suggest some common themes.
Of the 38 respondents, 30 percent felt spending time online had a somewhat negative effect on their emotional well-being and mental health. More than a third said it had a negative and positive effect. By far, the majority of those surveyed (84 percent) said they felt happiest online when learning about the world. Other popular responses to the multiple choice question of when they felt happiest included "expressing myself creatively" and "feeling intellectually engaged."
Meanwhile, the top reason for being unhappy after spending time online — reported by 45 percent of respondents — was because people felt like they'd wasted their time. The second most common response, at more than a quarter of participants, was wanting but failing to connect with others and feeling lonely. Parents and adults might be surprised to learn that none of our respondents said they were unhappy because they'd encountered dangerous situations or strangers. Only one person reported exposure to bullying. This insight is in line with our conclusion that parents need to rethink what they're scared about when it comes to children and screen time.
The top reasons for feeling happy or unhappy are important reminders of the ways time spent online can be rewarding and fulfilling. Yet, too often persuasive design draws us into meaningless tasks like aimless scrolling and clicking rather than focusing our attention on building meaningful connections with others.
Forty percent of survey participants were ages 16 and 17, and more than three quarters of all respondents said they spent three or more hours using digital media and entertainment every day — excluding time spent on their schoolwork. That's not out of the ordinary; a 2018 survey of teens by Pew Research Center found that 45 percent of respondents said they were online "almost constantly."
While near-constant use may be the new normal amongst teens, youth and parents should know that digital technology may negatively affect well-being when it displaces sleep, physical activities, and IRL connections. A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry, which accounted for a history of mental illness, found that adolescents who spent more than three hours a day on social media may be at higher risk for mental health problems.
Brendan, a 21-year-old who took our survey and shared additional feedback on the condition that we use only his first name for privacy reasons, said he felt like he spent too much time online as a teenager.
"I often used my phone/social media as an excuse not to talk to new people at social events and I definitely missed out," he wrote in an email. "When I stopped relying so much on my phone and started engaging in conversation with new people and joining clubs at university, I felt much more fulfilled."
Brendan's not alone in that habit either. Pew Research Center's survey also found that 43 percent of teen respondents said they often or sometimes used their phone "to avoid interacting with people."
"I often used my phone/social media as an excuse not to talk to new people at social events and I definitely missed out."
In general, Brendan's advice to teens trying to manage the internet's effect on their mental health and well-being is to minimize time on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, which invite highly curated posts that don't necessarily match reality.
"I found that seeing nothing but fancy cars, expensive vacations, and perfect selfies was making me feel disappointed in my lifestyle and ashamed of my looks," he wrote. "After deleting them I felt more grateful for the things I DO have and was much happier overall."
Brendan says his mental health has improved in the last year, thanks in part to increased social acceptance when it comes to talking about and seeking help for such issues.
If our survey is any indication, there are certainly young people who need support navigating their well-being as it relates to internet use, and even more who could benefit from online experiences that consistently and responsibly deliver some of what they seek: knowledge about the world, an outlet for creative expression, and opportunities to learn about themselves.
Read more from this series:
• 4 steps to finding the safest places online for kids
• New parents are anxious about screen time, but it gets better
• 12 of the safest places for kids on the internet