The Common Sense Census 2021: Media Use by Tweens and Teens (Survey Results)

The amount of time that teens and tweens spend on YouTube, TikTok, and other video-sharing sites really took off during the pandemic, while reading time among those age groups stayed flat. That was one of the key findings of a recent survey, The Common Sense Census 2021: Media Use by Tweens and Teens.

Youth Social Media Use Up, Reading Flat

Media use—defined as everything from reading e-books to watching videos to scrolling social media—by kids ages 8 to 18 was already on the upswing before the pandemic. But the pace of the acceleration has quickened significantly due to technology-related media use.

Overall media use rose by just 3 percent for tweens (ages 8-12) between 2015 and 2019, and 11 percent for teens (ages 13-18), over the same period. But in just two years—between 2019 and 2021—social media use for both groups increased by 17 percent, to a little more than five and half hours a day for tweens and just over eight and half hours for teens.

The biggest increase came in watching online videos, which grew by 23 minutes per day for teens, and by a minute for tweens. Among the 79% of 13- to 18-year-olds who are regular users of social media and online videos (viewing at least once a week), 83% have used YouTube, and 68% have used TikTok. Almost a third of kids (32%) age 8-18 say YouTube is the one site they wouldn’t want to live without. 20 percent of teens picked Snapchat, a social media platform. And nearly one in six—13 percent—selected Instagram or TikTok.

Comparatively, the Common Sense Census 2021 found that only about a third of tweens and one-fifth of teens reported spending some time reading for pleasure daily, about the same percentages as in 2019.

Media use continues to reflect gender differences, as well as racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic differences – but it’s not what you may think.

According to the Common Sense Census 2021 survey data, boys spend more time using online media than girls – but it’s not due to gaming. The report notes that there wasn’t a big spike in video game usage during the pandemic, even though kids seemingly had more time to play games like Minecraft and Fortnite.

Black and Hispanic kids consume more screen media than their white peers, which is kind of surprising. White teens spend an average of seven hours and 49 minutes a day consuming screen media for entertainment, compared with a little more than ten hours for Latino youth, and nine hours and 50 minutes for Black teens.

The report states there is a large number of low-income households that still don’t have a computer in the home. And yet, kids from low-income families entertain themselves using social media and other online content more than those from higher-income families. For example, teens whose families earn $100,000 a year or more spend an average of seven hours and 16 minutes on screens per day, about two hours less than teens from families that make less than $35,000 a year.

The Common Sense Census 2021 doesn’t tell us what causes these demographic disparities, but it would be an interesting topic for further study.

The number of tweens using social media – before they’re technically old enough to do so – is climbing.

In fact, social media usage surged among tweens, with 18 percent saying they use it every day, compared with 13 percent in 2019. That should be a worrying finding, wrote Michael Robb, Common Sense Media’s senior director of research, in an article highlighting the report’s findings.

“Considering tweens aren’t technically allowed to be on social media platforms at all, this growth in use should be concerning for advocates for safe, healthy, social media platforms,” Robb wrote. (Federal data collection laws prohibit kids under age 13 from using social media platforms.)

The Common Sense Census 2021 report’s findings were based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 1,306 kids ages 8 to 18, conducted from September 29 to October 25, 2021. The findings were compared with a similar survey conducted in the spring of 2019.

Want to explore visual highlights from the Common Sense Census 2021? Check out the infographic! Click here.

Common Sense Media is a nonprofit research organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing trustworthy information, education, and age-based reviews of entertainment and technology.

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