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What We Learned About Kids and Media in 2023

Our team has identified areas that need more research in 2024.

Asian teen girl sitting on a blue couch looking at her phone.

In 2023, Common Sense Media continued to advance our mission and deliver original research on the experiences that kids and families have with media and technology. Our research spanned several important areas that affect kids and teens, including digital privacy, online pornography, and links between social media use and mental well-being. We also explored innovative new methods in our research, including app-based data collection tools and youth voices.

Like in any year, our studies revealed areas to explore in future research. Here are three themes guiding our research team in 2024, plus a sneak peek at topics on our radar.

Demographics and identity bring nuance to kids' relationships with tech.

We learned more about the relationships that young people have with their smartphones and social media platforms. The young people who participated in these studies shared important insights about how social media makes them feel, and how they're striving to build healthier relationships with their phones. But we also saw that differences like gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and mental well-being can dramatically impact those experiences—and we need more research to better understand how.

  • To get a clearer picture of smartphone use, we looked at data on app use collected from a voluntary sample of young people's phones, complemented by real-world perspectives from teen advisers. We learned that adolescents' smartphones provide a lot of fun and connection, but they bring a lot of work as well. And there was considerable variation in how young people interacted with their phones, the boundaries they set, and how using apps made them feel. (Constant Companion: A Week in the Life of a Young Person's Smartphone Use)

  • We also explored adolescent girls' experiences on social media in greater depth: what they're doing, how it makes them feel, and what influences their experiences. We discovered that common features present across apps, like location sharing and photo filters, have the biggest impact on girls' social media experience, rather than the individual platforms themselves. The report continues to support the idea that teens who are already at risk or dealing with mental health challenges are more likely to have negative experiences with social media. (Teens and Mental Health: How Girls Really Feel About Social Media)

Looking ahead: We plan to study the impact of social media on boys' mental health, how kids 8 and younger are consuming online media, and the nuances of social media and mental well-being.

We need to help both policymakers and families understand how technology is putting profits before people.

There is more momentum than ever in Washington, D.C., to hold technology companies accountable for the ways in which their platforms can directly harm young people. Our research this year shed more light into how the business models of apps and platforms need young people—and their information. Research like this helps support the work of our advocacy team by providing data that can shape the conversation and make the case for change.

  • We took a deep dive into the most popular apps and platforms that kids and families use, and found many companies are misleading kids and families about data privacy, which means that parents and caregivers are unable to provide meaningful consent. Three-quarters of the apps and platforms that claim they do not sell data are still monetizing kids' and families' personal information in some way. Often they are tracking behavior and then sharing that data with advertisers for profit. (2023 State of Kids' Privacy)

  • Over two-thirds of 11- to 17-year-olds we surveyed said they "sometimes" or "often" find it difficult to stop using technology, that they use technology to escape from sorrow or get relief from negative feelings, and that they miss sleep due to being on their phone or the internet late at night. That's because these apps and devices profit from young people picking up their phones and engaging with them as much as possible, and many young people struggle to set boundaries. (Constant Companion: A Week in the Life of a Young Person's Smartphone Use)

Looking ahead: Watch for more research on fast-moving topics affecting families and teachers, including the use of generative AI and digital privacy.

Topics that may be alarming or uncomfortable to discuss are exactly where factual, unbiased research is needed the most.

The latest information on difficult topics is helpful to families and educators. We work to provide facts in a balanced, accessible way, through many channels, to support parents, caregivers, and educators in the important conversations they have with the kids in their lives.

  • In our research into youth and online pornography, we found that kids are encountering it earlier than expected—some even before age 10—and that many teens are viewing content regularly. Pornography isn't for kids, and work must be done to ensure they do not come across it accidentally. At the same time, we need to think about our conversations with teens about pornography the same way we think of conversations about sex, social media, drug and alcohol use, and other sensitive topics. (Teens and Pornography)

Looking ahead: Our partnerships with universities and other researchers give us additional sources of trusted data. We will also continue to keep youth voices central in our research so we can address topics important to them and elevate their interpretations of their usage and experiences.

Amanda Lenhart

Amanda Lenhart leads research efforts at Common Sense Media. She has spent her career studying how technology affects human lives, with a special focus on families and children. Most recently, as the program director for Health and Data at Data & Society Research Institute, Amanda investigated how social media platforms design for the digital well-being of youth. She began her career at the Pew Research Center, pioneering the Center’s work studying how teens and families use social and mobile technologies.