When asked how much time this generation of kids spends on their phones, most of us would simply answer, “A lot.” Research backs this up. We have lots of data about average screen time and trends related to screen use. Yet rough measures of “screen time” only tell us part of the story. Learning more about specific digital habits allows us to identify the specific areas of strength and vulnerability that shape outcomes.
Common Sense Media’s new report, Constant Companion: A Week in the Life of a Young Person’s Smartphone Use helps fill this gap. Combining data from a diverse sample of 11 to 17-year-olds’ phones with feedback from their Youth Advisory Council, the report paints a powerful picture of how cell phones are integrated into kids’ daily lives. Having youth “co-interpret” phone data helps situate statistics in the emotional realities of young people’s lives and points to ways we can better support them.
In many ways, this report confirms what most parents already know. Cell phones are young people’s constant companions. Here are a few highlights from the latest report.
→ Phones in the background, phones in the foreground.
While adults accuse kids of constantly staring at their phones, young people report using their devices for all kinds of purposes – including lots of background music, audio, and video. They also use tech to seek support, check in with friends, find entertainment, and to calm down during busy days. Youth advisors emphasized that phones are fully integrated into their lives, for better and for worse. While the data show that young people spend over four hours with their phones daily, this masks a lot of variability. Some kids are on their phones almost constantly while others just a few minutes.
→ Non-stop notifications.
Young people’s days are filled with pings, buzzes, and bubbles. According to this study, participants received a median of 237 notifications every day. Almost one-quarter of those notifications arrive while kids are at school and 5% on school nights. Some are enjoyable, others annoying, and many are distracting.
→ Frequent checking.
This study makes it clear that phones are always close at hand. Participants checked their phones a median of 51 times per day. That said, the range was significant, from two to 498 times a day. Teens check their phones more often than pre-teens. On average, older participants (age 13 and older) were likely to check their phones over 100 times a day.
→ TikTok is hard to resist.
Many teens noted that TikTok was among the “easiest” apps to use because of features like infinite content and algorithms that match your mood. About half of the participants who used TikTok and among those who did they spent a median of almost two hours per day there (almost 40% of their total phone time). One eleventh grader noted, “I also think the TikTok algorithm is just way better than any of the others. Even Instagram reels and then YouTube Shorts is like the same thing as TikTok, but the algorithm for TikTok is just way more addicting, I feel like [it]… draws you in more, and it also adapts really quickly”.
→ School phone use is common and policies are a patchwork.
Almost all of the participants in this study used their phones during the school day, for a median of 43 minutes. Not surprisingly, they shared that cell phone policies varied school to school and classroom to classroom. One 10th grader shared, “For my school, we do have a phone policy and we’re not technically allowed to have it out during class, but a lot of people do in spite of that.”
→ Tech and sleep are a tricky mix.
Almost 60% of the participants admitted to using their phones during school night hours, mostly for gaming, videos, or social media. Some youth advisors reported that listening to music or just taking time to themselves to “wind down” was helpful. Others noted that some apps like TikTok are “overstimulating” and make it harder to fall asleep.
What now, what next?
This data shines an important light on challenges that deserve our collective attention. For example, the barrage of notifications and the constant pull to check in are not simply a reflection of kids’ priorities or lack of willpower. Instead, it is a reminder that their daily lives are shaped in powerful ways by tech business models built on their time and attention.
At the same time, we would be wise to listen to the youth advisors in this report who marveled at the variation in the way that young people use their phones. Some have barely dipped their toes in while others are immersed. Some kids are deep into Snapchat, others dabble in YouTube, and still others have TikTok buzzing in the background.
Taken together, what does this all mean? Once again, this kind of report begs us to ask big questions about tech policy, design, and support for kids. It also invites us to turn towards the young people in our lives. Here are three ways to start:
1. Ask open, curious questions.
If there was ever a time to step meaningfully into the digital lives of pre-teens and teens, this is it. Rather than using this data to judge and control teens, we can use it as a starting point for open, curious, and non-judgemental conversations.
The reality is that this report reflects a wide range of tech habits among teens. A young person who checks their phones five times a day is having a very different experience than someone checking their phone over five hundred times a day. This is a good time to ask questions like,
- Where do you spend most of your time? What do you like about it? What don’t you?
- How does it make you feel?
- How do people treat each other in this space?
- What design features make it more or less easy to put your phone down when you are using this app?
- What do you think companies do to make this app hard to resist? Who benefits from this?
Let’s not expect to address these questions in one long, emotionally available conversation. But the more we hold back our assumptions, judgements, and lectures, the more likely we are to be invited in when it matters most. Let’s listen and invite reflection in creative ways over time.
2. Let’s take tech design and corporate accountability seriously.
Most young people have positive or at the very least neutral experiences online. But often this is in spite of, not because of, the ways these platforms are designed. Platforms built for clicks and profit do not do enough to encourage well-being or reduce the potential for harm. Young people shouldn’t be an afterthought in the design of spaces where they spend most of their free time. Plug into local policy conversations about age-appropriate design codes and regulations that center young people’s right to privacy and safe access without resorting to bans or control. Explore a range of responses including:
– Common Sense Media’s Tech Accountability
– 5 Rights Foundation’s Age Appropriate Design Code
– Connected Learning Alliance’s Algorithmic Rights and Protections for Children
3. Let’s set supportive boundaries and problem-solve together.
This report makes it clear that kids are working hard to manage things like digital distractions and overload. Self-motivated strategies are most likely to stick. Brainstorming ways to address their concerns related to attention, sleep, over-use, and harmful content helps kids get into the driver’s seat of their digital lives.
Young people can certainly benefit from clear and consistent boundaries when it comes to tech use. But let’s also create plenty of space for collaborative problem-solving. For example, we may choose to delay social media. We can also have conversations about persuasive design features and encourage experiments for managing the pull of screens. We may choose to set a tech curfew to protect kids’ sleep. We can also help them identify which apps activate or calm their brain or identify and practice “replacement habits” to manage worry and anxiety at night without tech.
Youth advisors in this study shared that their own relationships with devices evolved over time through trial and error. Their digital well-being improved alongside growing self-awareness and capacity to reflect on their digital habits. These positive developmental leaps don’t happen on their own. Kids deserve to have adults by their side willing to listen, connect, and problem solve solutions together.