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How parents say kids use social media versus how kids say they use it

The American Family Survey 2023 asked parents about their kids’ social media habits, while the Pew Research Center asked teens directly

It doesn’t surprise Chris Karpowitz that teens describe their social media use differently from how parents describe their kids’ social media use. Sometimes the differences are slight, other times substantial.

For instance, the American Family Survey 2023 — an annual, nationwide study conducted by YouGov for the Deseret News and Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institute — found that 66% of parents say their kids use Instagram. 

But the Pew Research Center’s recent report “Teens, Social Media and Technology 2023,” found that 59% of teens say they use Instagram.

“Anyone who has parented teenagers will not be surprised that sometimes parental impressions are slightly different than teen impressions of the world,” said Karpowitz, who is a political science professor at BYU and a principal investigator of the American Family Survey 2023.

For some platforms, the discrepancies are large: 57% of parents say their kids use Facebook, while only 33% of teens say they use it; and 61% of parents say their kids use YouTube, while 93% of teens report using it.

But for other platforms, there’s little to no difference — 63% of parents say their kids use TikTok, the same percentage of teens that report using it.

The American Family Survey 2023 and the recent Pew Research Center data aren’t perfectly comparable; the former surveyed 3,000 Americans and asked questions about kids ages 10 through 18, while the latter surveyed 1,453 U.S. teens ages 13 through 17.

But the numbers still highlight some interesting trends. For example, Karpowitz said he’s struck by how Instagram, TikTok and YouTube emerge as the most used platforms across both surveys.

“Both parents and teens see those [platforms] as places where … teens are likely to be,” he said.

A phone displays the Instagram app login page.
The American Family Survey 2023 asked parents about their kids’ social media habits, while the Pew Research Center asked teens directly. Although the surveys aren’t perfectly comparable, the numbers highlight some interesting trends. | DepositPhotos

Social media use: What parents say, what kids say

The American Family Survey 2023 found that social media use among kids ages 10 through 18 is nearly universal — 96% of parents say their kids have access to at least one social media platform.

  • 66% of parents say their children use Instagram.
  • 63% say TikTok.
  • 61% say YouTube.
  • 57% say Facebook.
  • 51% say Snapchat.
  • 31% say Twitter (now known as X).
  • 16% say Pinterest.
  • 4% say BeReal.
  • 3% say they don’t know which social media platforms their children use.

Conversely, U.S. teens ages 13 through 17 surveyed by the Pew Research Center report much lower rates of Facebook use and much higher rates of BeReal use.

  • 59% say they use Instagram.
  • 63% say they use TikTok.
  • 93% say they use YouTube.
  • 33% say they use Facebook.
  • 60% say they use Snapchat.
  • 20% say they use Twitter (now known as X).
  • 13% say they use BeReal.

The Pew Research Center did not ask teens about their use of Pinterest.

While the comparisons between surveys aren’t perfect, Karpowitz said trying to understand what parents see online versus what children see online is important.

“It’s clear from our surveys that parents have many concerns about social media,” he said.

A computer screen displays the YouTube home page.
The American Family Survey 2023 asked parents about their kids’ social media habits, while the Pew Research Center asked teens directly. Although the surveys aren’t perfectly comparable, the numbers highlight some interesting trends. | Ryhor Bruyeu, Grigory Bruev

The American Family Survey 2023 found that 40% of parents with children ages 10 through 18 worry at least sometimes about what their children see online. The same percentage said they worry at least sometimes about what their children post online.

Despite this, “they’re certainly not actively using some of the parental controls that currently exist,” Karpowitz said. According to the survey:

  • 36% of parents worried about time spent online say they place time restrictions on their children.
  • 35% of parents worried about phishing and cybersecurity say their children’s social media accounts are private.
  • 28% of parents worried about inappropriate content online say they place content restrictions on their children.
  • 26% of parents who are worried about online predators say they place contact restrictions on their children.

Karpowitz said he’s unsure why so few parents use restrictions despite their concerns. “I think those are good questions for the future.” 

The survey also found that 69% of parents want government restrictions on social media.

“They would like the government to be involved in some way in regulating social media, but they’re not really sure what form that regulation should take,” Karpowitz said.

The Pew Research Center didn’t ask teens what they think about government restrictions, but Karpowitz speculated they’d have “very different” preferences than their parents. “My sense is that teens today would react very negatively to ... blanket bans on social media and heavy-handed government intervention.”

A woman scrolls through social media on her phone.
The American Family Survey 2023 asked parents about their kids’ social media habits, while the Pew Research Center asked teens directly. Although the surveys aren’t perfectly comparable, the numbers highlight some interesting trends. | James Richards

The Latter-day Saint perspective on social media use

When it comes to social media use among Latter-day Saints, there’s not much data to examine. Karpowitz said Latter-day Saints made up just over 1% of the American Family Survey 2023’s respondents — about 36 people out of 3,000.

As such, he can’t speak from a data perspective about Latter-day Saints’ social media use; but anecdotally, he’s observed that Latter-day Saint parents have many of the same concerns that other parents do.

“They also are trying to figure out what the right approach is because social media can be … used as a positive force in society, and it can also be a very negative and concerning force in the lives of teens,” Karpowitz said, adding that, “We really do see parents ... struggling to figure out what to do in this new online world.”

But he thinks churches, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, can help parents and youth determine values that should guide their social media use. This includes thinking about what wise social media use looks like and how to balance an online life with other elements of a happy, fulfilling life, he said.

“I think any institution that helps to clarify values and priorities for both parents and youth can play a productive and positive role,” Karpowitz said.

Woman with long blonde hair taps on a smartphone she is holding.
The American Family Survey 2023 asked parents about their kids’ social media habits, while the Pew Research Center asked teens directly. Although the surveys aren’t perfectly comparable, the numbers highlight some interesting trends. | stock.adobe.com

Resources for wise technology use

Church leaders have long counseled Latter-day Saints to use technology, including the internet and social media, with wisdom.

In support of this, the “Taking Charge of Technology” resources were added this year to the Gospel Library app in the Youth section.

Former Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon spoke about the resources on a July 2023 episode of the Church News podcast.

The resources include three principles for taking charge of technology as a disciple of Christ: purpose, plan and pause.

Purpose: “I can use technology with a purpose. It doesn’t control me.”

“I, the Lord, have a great work for thee to do” (Doctrine and Covenants 112:6).

Plan: “When I plan ahead, I feel better and make better choices.”

“This life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32).

Pause: “It’s OK for me to pause and take a break.”

“Be still and know that I am God” (Doctrine and Covenants 101:16).

A Taking Charge of Technology visual guide is being given to youth at For the Strength of Youth conferences in 2023.
A visual guide outlines three principles for wise technology use. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Questions to think about include:

  • “Why am I using technology right now?”
  • “Do I feel good about what I’m doing?”
  • “What is my plan for using technology?”
  • “What sign am I showing God with how I use my time?”
  • “Am I avoiding content I know is not right or purposeful?”

Practical suggestions include:

  • Using filters.
  • Being intentional about technology use.
  • Setting daily limits on screen time.
  • Have device-free areas at home and a family charging station.
  • Connecting only with close family and friends.
  • Putting the device down and stepping away.

These tools go hand in hand with the “Follow the Safeguards for Technology” section in the new edition of “Preach My Gospel.” The safeguards have been taught to missionaries before, but now they are included prominently in the new manual and online.

Sherilyn C. Stinson, the commissioner of Family Services for the Church, spoke about missionaries and technology on the Church News podcast in May.

“They need to learn to disconnect from their devices,” Stinson said. “That’s one of the biggest challenges, because devices become their coping mechanism. And whatever their coping mechanism might be, if it’s not portable to the mission field, they’re going to be in trouble.”

But youth using the new “Taking Charge of Technology” resources in the Gospel Library app can put themselves on a better path for the future.

Young Men General President Steven J. Lund said, “Our youth in the Church can choose a different path. They can realize that they control technology. It doesn’t control them.”

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