Screen Time Has Gone Up (Again) – What Do Teens and Tweens Need Now?

“The data are out!” I said aloud while scrolling through the feeds on my laptop. 

“What data?” my older son asked, briefly looking up from his school issued Chromebook. 

“Dataaaa! Dataaaa!” my youngest sang enthusiastically, clearly not tracking the conversation but willing to be a part of it. He continued swiping through activities on his iPad. 

My entire family was back in the juggling act of working and learning at home during another disruption to in-person school. 

I laughed to myself as I surveyed the scene in my own home. The data in the latest “Common Sense Census: Media Use by Tweens and Teens” comes as no surprise to many of us: Screen time went up in 2021.   

Tween using tablet during pandemic screen time

Media Use By Tweens and Teens in 2021

Every year since 2015, Common Sense Media releases a report that details media use among teens and tweens. These reports help us track trends and better understand how children and youth are spending their time online. 

The latest report confirms what many of us know intuitively: Entertainment media use grew faster in the last two years than it did in the four years before the pandemic. While many of us didn’t think it was possible to cram more entertainment screen time into our waking hours, we somehow managed to do so in 2021. 

How much exactly? Use of screen media was up 17% for tweens and teens since the start of the pandemic. This means that tweens spend a whopping five and a half hours a day with entertainment media and teens now spend the equivalent of a long work day with their devices. They clock in at over eight hours a day. 

Of course, rough measures of “screen time” only tell us part of the story. Learning more about specific digital habits among young people allows us to identify specific areas of strength and vulnerability that shape outcomes. For example, an earlier report illuminated the many ways young people used media to learn, create, connect, and access much-needed mental health support during the pandemic. That said, broad screen time trends are still important. They help us identify emerging areas of concern and opportunity.

A few highlights from the latest report include:

–> Tweens and teens don’t want to imagine life without YouTube. While young people still spend a lot of time gaming and on social media, YouTube is now the top site that tweens and teens say they wouldn’t want to live without. 

–> Social media use is growing among younger tweens. Nearly 40% of eight- to twelve-year-olds have used social media and are spending more time in these spaces than they did before the pandemic. This is significant given that these platforms are not built with tweens in mind.

–> Teens have conflicted feelings about social media. Even though they spend a good portion of their day there, only one-third of 13-18 year olds say that they enjoy using social media “a lot.” It appears that their ambivalence has grown alongside their use. 

–> Both screen use and access to technology continue to vary by gender, race, and income. There is significant variation in both use of and access to technology. For example, children in higher-income households continue to have more access to computers than those in lower-income households. At the same time, tweens in lower-income households spend nearly three hours more with entertainment media per day than those in higher-income households. This is a reminder that both the digital divide and opportunity gaps are alive and well, accelerating online inequities.

–> More teens want to spend time together in-person than before the pandemic. While adults often worry that “online only” friends will crowd out offline connections, it appears that most teens would rather hang out in person. Nearly half of teens express wanting to socialize in person more often than they did before the pandemic. 

What now, what next?

In many ways, the broad increases in media use are not surprising given the pandemic disruptions to our routines in real life. That said, even after a lot of schools had opened up again this past year, we didn’t see screen time drop significantly. Even if 2022 shows a drop in tech use, tech use will still dominate teens’ free time. This is the time to get serious about digital wellbeing. Here are three places to start:

Let’s show up as the digital mentors our kids desperately need.

If there was ever a time to step meaningfully into the digital lives of tweens and teens, this is it. Not just to protect them from harm, but to ensure that we are investing in the biggest protective factor of all: Our ability to stay connected with kids as their digital worlds expand.  

Our kids need digital mentors who can practice both/and thinking when it comes to wellbeing and media use. They need us to hold social media platforms accountable and teach individual coping skills. They need us to delight in their digital strengths and watch for signs of struggle. They need us to take interest in their favorite YouTubers and draw essential boundaries that protect:

They need us to show up meaningfully in their digital lives. 

Let’s create and invest in digital spaces that center adolescent wellbeing.

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 for profit do not do enough to encourage wellbeing or reduce the potential for harm. 

It’s true that current studies generally show very small direct effects of social media on mental health. Even pandemic-specific studies don’t provide strong support that overall changes in adolescent well-being during the pandemic were driven by social technology use.

This reinforces the idea that the relationship between social media and mental health can’t be explained by simple “dose effect” conventions. Instead, it’s complicated. That’s why we need more research that explores why some teens experience more benefits or harms than others. For example, a recent study found that there may be specific developmental windows (namely the start of puberty and after graduating high school) where teens may be most sensitive to the effects of social media.

Young people shouldn’t be an afterthought in the design of spaces where they spend most of their free time. Instead, designing platforms to support vulnerable subgroups  and putting equity at the center of that design benefits us all. 

Tweens and teens benefit when we engage them in these conversations. We can:

Let’s create and invest in bridging spaces that center adolescent wellbeing.

Too often, we focus just on reducing screen time without increasing access to spaces where all teens can gather and grow. Digital mentors aren’t just at home. They are in libraries, youth centers, classrooms, and neighborhoods. 

The pandemic taught us that young people and their families rely on systems of support to thrive. When our safety and support nets disappear this only accelerates opportunity gaps among youth. Evidence shows that connected learning environments that bridge personal interests to meaningful relationships and real-world opportunity help close those gaps.

Kids rely on adults to build accessible bridges between their online interests and offline opportunities to connect and collaborate. Let’s start building more of them.

Parents and teens deserve the support of our human networks too.

The data are in. Our kids are spending more and more of their time in socially networked spaces online. We know that we have tremendous power and influence within our relationships and inside our own homes.

Placing the entire burden on parents or teenagers, however, doesn’t reflect the scale and scope of the challenge. It also limits our collective imagination about what’s possible for teens and tweens online and offline. So let’s also look up from our own devices towards towards collective solutions to digital wellbeing.