Kids have used social apps more during the pandemic, but express conflicting feelings about them
A new report suggests that tech companies self-regulating their products is an insufficient solution to a worsening problem.
Common Sense, an organization dedicated to improving kids' media lives, on Wednesday released a new report with new data on how preteens and teenagers use digital media, including the most popular social apps.
I received an advance copy of the report and have been studying the findings for the better part of the week during every free moment I’ve been allowed by the relentless political news cycle.
The implications of the research for sure matter to parents, educators, public health officials, policymakers and business executives. But they are also interesting to creators who are invested in the well-being of the next generation of digital movers and shakers.
“What we found is noteworthy, but probably not surprising: Media use has grown faster since the start of the pandemic — over a two-year period — than I had over the previous four years,” Jim Steyer, founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, wrote in the report’s letter. “But this report goes a few steps further by exploring the content behind those numbers: How kids are spending that time and how their engagement with media makes them feel.”
In theory, social apps offer values as gateways to learning, creative expression, human connection and, of course, entertainment. But in reality, they also perpetuate some of the racial, economic and other inequities that were aggravated by a disruptive virus.
Common Sense said it has tracked these trends since 2015. However, this year’s report is its first opportunity to see kids’ media use and compare the numbers from previous years within the context of the pandemic.
84 percent of teens use social apps. Only one-in-three say they enjoy them “a lot” though.
This would be a pedestrian data point if the amount of screen time among tweens and teens between 2019 and 2021 didn’t increase faster in two years than it did in the previous four years. Also startling for someone like me who trades in words: daily reading for personal pleasure stayed about the same.
Drilling down even further, you’ll find that boys spend more screen time than girls, Black and brown kids use more than white kids do and children from lower-income households use more than those in higher-income homes. Square this data with fact that large numbers of nonwhite children and those from low-income households still lack access to a computer at home and you’ve got the basis for the US’s digital divide.
“Given the amount of time young people spend engaging with screen media, it’s incredibly important that content providers, policymakers, and parents do everything possible to enhance the quality of the experiences being offered,” said Victoria Rideout, lead author of the research. “This is why we need to care so much about issues like gender and ethnic stereotypes in media.”
Tweens, eight- to 12-year-old Americans, are using social apps at increasing rates although they’re technically supposed to be restricted from doing so. (The minimum age is 13 to sign up for apps like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube, which by the way, is the one teens say they wouldn’t want to live without.)
Instagram has received the most public criticism — including in this newsletter — for what can be perceived as prioritizing its business considerations over the online safety of savvy kids who are sidestepping their parents’ gaze to get their social cues and sense of belonging from apps designed to reinforce what you already believe about yourself and the world.
Meta, the company that owns Instagram (and Facebook and WhatsApp), last week introduced “Family Center,” a new hub of safety tools for parents to better control what their kids can see and do across its apps. The tools will allow parents to monitor how much time a child spends on the app, be updated about accounts they’ve followed lately and who has followed them and receive notifications about any accounts they’ve reported.
But a spokesperson for Common Sense told me that the Family Center is yet another move from Meta that imposes the responsibility on parents to protect kids who use their platforms.
And although some of the features may be helpful for parents, such as tracking their kids' time usage on the app, they fail to get the root problem, which they said is exposure to harmful content amplified by algorithms on the platform.
These features, I’m told, also do not acknowledge that kids and teens can and will easily make secret accounts that are not subject to parental supervision.
“Meta is in a position to make real design changes to their platform to make it a safer, healthier place — such as turning off behavioral advertising for kids and teens — but are passing the buck to already overburdened parents,” the spokesperson said. “Parental controls and more educational resources cannot resolve that.”
Faith Eischen, a spokesperson for Meta, said in response to several questions that keeping teens safe on its apps is always a priority for the company. Resources like the Family Center are part of a concerted effort to include parents and guardians more in their teens’ experiences and provide them more support as their teens navigate social media.
Meta last year also introduced the Sensitive Content Control, which allows people to decide how much sensitive content shows up in Explore. The control has three options: Allow, Limit and Limit Even More. (Eischen said the company is exploring the expansion of Limit Even More to make it more difficult for teens to come across potentially harmful or sensitive content or accounts in Search, Explore, Hashtags, Reels and Suggested Accounts.)
The company acknowledged that kids create secondary, often private, accounts, knowns as “finstas” — a portmanteau of fake and Instagram — but said the intention of the new resources is to empower teens to feel comfortable sharing their accounts with their parents or guardians and are focused on developing educational resources to help parents and teens have meaningful conversations.
In addition to an age screen that requires people to provide their birthday when signing up for a social app, Meta says it uses artificial intelligence to estimate people’s ages, like if someone is below or above 18. The AI also looks at the age you shared on Facebook and applies it to our other apps where you have linked your accounts and vice versa to restrict people who try to misrepresent their age.
“This technology isn’t perfect, and we’re always working to improve it,” Eischen said. “But that’s why it’s important we use it alongside many other signals to understand people’s ages.”
This is where a well-informed and functional Congress would come in handy. There are several pieces of legislation that would put safeguards in place to make technology work better for kids in various phases of the legislative process.
As I reported last month, Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. of Louisiana Bill Cassidy joined an event hosted by the Future of Tech Commission, of which Common Senses’s Jim Steyer is co-chair, to discuss the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act 2.0, an updated version of the law passed in 1998.
In addition to Sens. Markey and Cassidy, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut introduced the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill that would require tech companies to outfit their social apps with extra safety and privacy tools for children under 16.
“Real rules like my Kids Online Safety Act are urgently needed to empower kids and parents with tangible tools and strong safeguards — and to hold Big Tech accountable,” Blumenthal said in a statement to Supercreator.
What’s clear is that tech companies regulating themselves against incentives that bolster their bottom line is insufficient.
“If kids are spending this much time online, and some are even feeling conflicted about it, we need to give them safer digital spaces to explore,” Steyer wrote. “This report should be a wake-up call for policymakers, who are seeing unprecedented bipartisan support for action.”
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Today in Politics
President Biden will take a family photo with other leaders at NATO headquarters and speak on the crisis in Ukraine. He will also speak at the leaders’ meeting with the leaders of Japan, Germany, France, the UK, Italy, and Canada. Biden will meet with European Council President Charles Michel and speak at a European Council Summit as well. He’ll hold a press conference too.
Vice President Kamala Harris this afternoon will speak on voting rights.
The House is out.
The Senate is in and will continue debate on a bill to increase US competitiveness with China.
In the Know
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said she would recuse herself from a case against Harvard over its affirmative action admissions policies if she’s confirmed to the Supreme Court. “That is my plan,” Jackson, who graduated from Harvard, said during the third day of her Senate confirmation hearings. (Tierney Sneed and Ariane de Vogue / CNN)
Related: Democratic Rep. Joyce Beatty of Ohio and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus will testify during the final day of the Jackson confirmation hearings. The hearings will also feature testimony from the American Bar Association and outside witnesses.
Related: 58 percent of Americans say the Senate should vote in favor of Jackson serving on the Supreme Court, the highest measure for any recent nominee. Most other nominees had support in the low 50 percent range, with five below that mark. (Jeffrey M. Jones / Gallup)
Madeleine Albright, the first woman to serve as Secretary of State, died of cancer at the age of 84. She was the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US government at the time of her confirmation in 1997. (Dareh Gregorian / NBC News)
Kirsten Allen will be Vice President Harris’s new press secretary. An alum of the vice president’s short-lived 2019 campaign for president, Allen replaces Symone Sanders, who now has her own soon-to-be-launched MSNBC weekend show, and is the former national press secretary for COVID-19 response at the Department of Health and Human Services. (Jasmine Wright / CNN)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced members of Russia’s military have committed war crimes based on public and intelligence sources. “Our assessment is based on a careful review of available information from public and intelligence sources. As with any alleged crime, a court of law with jurisdiction over the crime is ultimately responsible for determining criminal guilt in specific cases,” Blinken said. “We are committed to pursuing accountability using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions.”
The State Department announced it will allow Americans whose passports expired on or after Jan. 1, 2020, to return from abroad directly to the US. The Department has partnered with the Department of Homeland Security and commercial airlines to facilitate this policy to apply the criteria for traveling on an expired passport.
Moderna requested emergency use authorization from federal regulators for its vaccine for kids under six. The manufacturer said the vaccine’s efficacy was consistent with the effectiveness against the Omicron variant seen in adults.
The Louisiana National Guard activated 300 personnel to clear roads and provide security and engineering support in the aftermath of a widespread tornado Tuesday night. The violent storm caused two confirmed deaths, multiple injuries and extensive land damage. (Rachel Scully / The Hill)
Republican Gov. Brad Little of Idaho signed a bill modeled after a Texas law banning abortion after six weeks that enables relatives of people who seek abortion care to sue the doctor who performs the procedure. Court disputes are expected, but these laws are crafted to avoid constitutional challenges because they’re enforced through civil suits. (Keith Ridler / AP News)
11 nonprofit groups identified as anti-LGBTQ hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center took in over $110 million in contributions during the financial year ending in 2020. These donations have funded an organized conservative assault on gay and trans rights across the country under the guise of parental rights and women’s equality. (Stuart Richardson / NBC News)
Internet crime cost people more than $6.9 billion in 2021, up more than $2 billion from 2020, according to the FBI. The top three cybercrimes reported last year: phishing scams, non-payment/non-delivery and personal data breaches. (David Anders / CNET)
Instagram released two new options to display your feed in reverse chronological order or from a list of specific accounts, such as closest friends and favorite creators. The app’s ranked feed will remain its default though.
Spotify renamed its live conversation product Spotify Live. The company will also integrate the content into its main streaming app in a move it says will make the service more accessible for users.
YouTube will now allow people to stream nearly 4,000 episodes of TV shows with ads on the web, mobile devices and the YouTube TV app. The company plans to add up to 100 shows and movies each week, as it positions itself to compete against over-the-air television and streaming apps like Roku. (Jay Peters / The Verge)
Read All About It
Ella Ceron on why most millennials don’t own homes:
With the average U.S. home price now topping $330,000 and decades-high inflation well outpacing wage gains, the generation now ages 26 to 41 is feeling the squeeze just as they should be entering their financial prime, leading many to put off marriage and having kids.
It’s easy in hindsight to say that millennials should have bought a home when prices were depressed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. But even then, millennials — the oldest of whom were around 27 years old — were saddled with debt and seeking jobs in an unforgiving market. Both the 2008 recession as well as Covid-19 struck at critical times in their developing careers.
Jerusalem Demsas on the promise — and problem — of restorative justice:
The rise of restorative justice programs has introduced the concept of forgiveness — usually kept far away from America’s courtrooms — to the criminal justice system. While forgiveness is not the focus of these programs, its potential fills the air as victim, offender, and community members all meet in the same place.
These programs are alternatives to the traditional sentencing models and offer an opportunity for victims, offenders, and members of their respective communities to meet and, ideally, repair harm, answer lingering questions, and restore broken bonds.
But restorative justice’s answers to forgiveness’s thorniest questions and its relationship to the concept more broadly are up in the air. While forgiveness is widely seen as both virtuous and healing, the specter of forgiveness that hangs above restorative justice proceedings can be a hollow and fragile imitation of the real thing, and it carries with it the potential to reinforce cycles of violence.
Kevin Carey on pre-K:
The problem is, pre-K is not very much like a vaccine. Educating a child is more like building a house. Nobody thinks of walls, windows, and roofs as discrete interventions designed to keep people warm and dry. They are components of a larger whole. If the roof leaks, you get wet. If the windows break, you get wet. Foundation cracked? Wet. All the pieces have to work together at the same time.
Many early education initiatives, like Head Start and the Tennessee program, have been provided to children living in impoverished, sometimes traumatic environments. The public schools in their neighborhoods are often underfunded and poorly performing. Jobs and health care are scarce. Giving them pre-K can be like helping an unhoused person by building a single wall on a vacant lot. One wall is better than no walls, but they are still exposed to the elements above and on three sides.
Jeffrey Selingo on the college admissions process:
Much of the dysfunction stems from a misperception about how hard getting into college is. At hypercompetitive schools, ridiculously low acceptance rates have become the norm: 5 percent at Stanford University, 10 percent at Colby College, and 12 percent at Vanderbilt last year. But selectivity is something of an illusion, stressing students out and leading them to needlessly apply to multiple colleges when they can enroll in only one. The overwhelming majority of colleges admit most students who apply. Seventy-five percent of schools that use the Common App accept more than half of their applicants. Yet “students come to the Common App thinking they aren’t going to get in anywhere, but they will,” Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of the Common App, told me. In other words, plenty of spots are out there, just not at the small set of elite institutions whose freshman classes have barely budged in size since the late 1970s.
Erika Veurink on “good enough” skin:
For me, good enough skin requires ground rules: sticking with what works (no new products for old problems) and spending less than $50 on everything. I’ve stopped believing an SPF can change my skin or that the right facial could unlock a better self. It’s hard to tell if my skin is less textured than it was almost exactly a year ago when I wrote my first beauty story. The money I might have spent on products has been spent on the trappings of a joyful life — cases of artisanal seltzer, vintage linen sets, flowers for friends. Today, good enough feels better than perfect.
Mahira Rivers on why luxury ingredients suddenly seem so popular:
If it seems like restaurants all over the city are adding luxury-ingredient supplements to their menus, that’s because they are. They run the gamut, from a $20 “bump” of caviar beside a martini to the classic $75-plus shaving of seasonal white truffles. Wagyu is the lavish-beef signifier of choice — be it for burgers, tartare, or straight-up steaks — and you’d be hard-pressed to find a bowl of spaghetti that can’t be topped, for a price, with a few precious lobes of orange urchin. At a certain tier of New York restaurants, once rare luxuries have become everyday ingredients, as much because of their pedigree as their ability to consistently improve restaurants’ bottom lines at a time when operators are working every available angle to remain profitable.
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