Parents, teachers, coaches, gather round. If you have a teenager in your life, listen up. I may have stumbled onto some insight into the secret lives of teenagers. And by “secret life,” I mean “digital life.”

I have some reliable info about their phones and the things they experience on social media. If you have witnessed a teen with a phone seemingly grafted onto their hand, you know that this is big stuff. Oh, and parents – lean in closer here- I’ve learned some interesting things about you, too!

I recently put together a little survey and had my 6th grade son and 12th grade son send it out to their friends on social media. It took off. I also went to several area high schools and had a number of classes get out their phones and take my 10-question survey and pass it on to their friends. It really took off there, too.

Eight hundred completed surveys later, I have been reliably informed that my survey has popped up at a variety of area schools, public and private, and has even travelled out of Chattanooga via the information superhighway into several different parts of the country.

“Sounds good! What did you find out?”

Hang on, I’m getting there.

“C’mon… if you have good intel about teens and their phones, let’s hear it!”

Okay, but before I help you with this information, I have to confess it really hit me between the eyes as a father of five kids: I have to do better.

There, I said it. My kids need me to do better.

Here is what over 800 teenagers said about phones, social media and their parents.

Vampires that feed on Wi-Fi connections.

Right away, I noticed that some of the most alarming information wasn’t even gleaned from the students’ answers themselves, but was embedded in the survey metadata. Even though the survey is completely anonymous, each one is timestamped – showing when it was completed.

Many of the surveys were completed between 12:00-6:00 AM. My eyes widened as I scrolled through the timestamps – 1:07 AM, 1:18, 1:22, 2:03, 3:30, and on all through the night. These were school nights, as in nights before days when teens are expected to sit through classes covering Geometry, U.S. History and Shakespeare.

Google “sleep and academic performance.”

Life happens on screens.

According to research much more rigorous than my little survey, teens spend between seven and nine hours a day in front of some kind of screen. While these numbers shocked me, the students I have shared this research with have just kinda shrugged and said they think the number of hours is actually higher. Teen faces are in front of phones for a shockingly large amount of time each day. But you already knew that.

The older generation often has a hard time understanding this, but for people who grew up on phones and social media, their life happens online. They have a digital “self” that they often perceive as their “real” self. Relationships are digitized, and the phone is where they hang out.

I had a student tell me recently that 90% of her relationship with her boyfriend takes place over social media. Understand that for teens, being bullied and stalked aren’t simply not-so-great things that happened on their phone. These are traumatic things that happened to them and trigger responses similar to if it happened to them in “real life.” For teens, digital life is real life.

The meme streets of the digital city.

What exactly are teens experiencing on these devices that they are on 24/7? According to the survey, almost 60% are fending off complete strangers that contact them. Between 40-50% of teens are being sent sexual messages and pictures, as well as being solicited for sexual pictures of themselves. They are dealing with intense relationship issues like being broken up with, ignored and lied about. Almost a third of teens reported being bullied, threatened, or stalked. I had a student tell me that 10 minutes after she left a restaurant, the creepy waiter found her online and began messaging her.

Online life is real life; online pain is real pain.

What is the emotional toll of these experiences on teens? Recently, I helped lead a focus group at a local high school. When we asked about the emotions and feelings that teens struggle with, many students were quick to answer “stress” and “depression.” When pressed to explain what they believed contributed to these feelings, “social media” was the first response and was quickly affirmed by several other students.

The observations of the kids in the focus group line up perfectly with the survey’s findings. While a third of respondents reported that “social media has NEVER made me feel stress, anxiety or depressed,” 58% indicated that social media has made them feel stress, 48% indicated social media contributed to anxiety, 40% connected feeling depressed to social media, and 28% of students indicated that social media made them feel all three – stress, anxiety and depression.

Filtering these responses by grade level strongly indicates that stress, anxiety and depression resulting from social media use INCREASES as kids get older. In other words, middle-schoolers were more likely to say that social media didn’t create stress, anxiety or depression, but the number of kids who felt stress, anxiety or depression increased steadily from 9th to 12th grade. Whoa.

Social media is killing our children. There is a growing body of research on social media and mental health. Mom, Dad- get Googling.

No sheriff in the Digital Wild West?

So here is where parents swoop in and help their kids, right? This is when we parents step up and help our teens navigate these difficult online experiences and process the real life hurt. Except the survey raises serious questions about whether this is actually happening. Parents, this is where your kids were very open about you.

A whopping 60% of respondents indicated that their parents “never” check their phone and 20% indicated that their parents check their phone “a couple times a year.” Together, this means 80% of parents check their teens phone once or twice a year or never at all.

When asked, “How long it has been since the last time your parents checked your phone?” many teens answered, “Never, because my parents trust me,” or “They don’t check, they trust me.” I remember another survey I did with students two years ago where I asked them “What helps you make good choices with your phone, what keeps you out of trouble online?” The number one answer might surprise you: It was “knowing that my parents will check my phone.” Besides, your teen might really be a great kid, but bad things can still happen to them online.

If parents are not actually checking their children’s phones, maybe they are keeping tabs on their kids’ lives by being connected to them on the social media apps that they use. Some parents make their kids accept their “follow” or “friend” request, which allows the parent to see what their child is posting. Again, the survey results are not encouraging.

29% of parents are not following their teens on “any” social media apps, and just under half are following their teens on “some” social media apps. Don’t let that “some” encourage you too much. When I personally conducted the survey in classrooms, many students were very quick to tell me that the apps that their parents follow them on are not the apps they use to actually socialize with their friends. Only 24% of students indicated that their parents follow them on all their social media apps.

The family that eats together, tweets together.

So if most parents are not checking their teen’s phone and if they are not connected to their teens on social media, are parents at least having some quality conversations with their teens about their digital lives? In the not so distant past, dinner time was when families sat down together and talked through the ups and downs of the day. When asked about mealtime habits in their homes, 53% of teens observed that their family doesn’t eat meals together, or if they do, they are on their phones or watching television during the meal. Only 46% indicated that their family does, in fact, eat meals together and that during this time, people are not on their phones or watching television. If these conversations are not happening during meals, when are they happening?

You’re on your own, kid.

Connecting all of these dots paints an alarming picture. Teens are having difficult and even traumatic experiences that contribute to stress, anxiety and depression by way of phones that are rarely if ever checked. Parents are out of the loop when it comes to social media. Dinnertime tabletalk is more and more rare. When families do manage to share a meal together, it seems everyone has a fork in one hand and their phone in the other. So, when are parents helping their children navigate these emotionally-complicated digital waters? If the results of my survey are accurate, it seems like most teens are on their own.

The ugly truth.

If we are honest as parents, we are often not attentive to the digital lives of our children because our own digital lives have consumed us. To peer into our children’s phones would require us to look up from our own. In the meantime, our children are wandering alone through a Digital Metropolis with many dark alleys, shady characters and dangerous intersections. We wouldn’t drop our kids off on the outskirts of a big city and say, “Have fun! Make good choices!”

My child’s phone is a portal to another world. I need to be walking with them and talking along the way.

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