Commentary

Teens Prefer Screens To People

A new study from Common Sense Media confirms that teens would rather spend time with screens than other people. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than two-thirds of teens say that they would rather communicate with friends online than face-to-face.

Since Common Sense’s last survey in 2012, the percentage of teens preferring in-person communication has fallen from 49% to 32%. Meanwhile, talking on the phone has remained nearly flat as a preferred medium, picked by about 5% of respondents.. And all of the online methods have increased, including texting (33% to 35%), social media (more than doubling from 7% to 16%), and video chatting (quintupling from 2% to 10%).

Even teens acknowledge that this sea change in communications has come at a cost. More than half (54%) agree that their devices distract them when they should be paying attention to the people they’re with.

And nearly half (44%) report being frustrated when their friends are on their phones while they’re hanging out. The lead researcher and co-author of the study notes that this can create a vicious circle in hanging out: if everybody is on their device and not engaged with the people around them, it makes hanging out less fun, and further drives teens to their devices.

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Usage of phones and social media is staggering among teens: about nine in ten have a smartphone (more than double the number in 2012); seven in ten use social media more than once a day (double the number in 2012); more than a third use social media multiple times per hour; and 16% say they’re on it nearly constantly. 

How can marketers take advantage of these findings?

*Find ways to empower teens “hanging out together but apart.” Even when they’re alone, teens want to share experiences with their friends. Enable them to do so with online activities that they can participate in together, such as bulletin boards, communities and group viewings. Imagine if a streaming service had a “group view” feature where a group of friends could enter an online screening room, watch a movie or TV show in perfect sync, and comment on it in real time.

*Create better immersive experiences. Conversely, “IRL” (in real life) experiences need to be so engaging that they force participants to put away their phones. That's the reason why escape rooms are so popular: everybody’s phone is confiscated for an hour, forcing them to communicate face-to-face to piece together the clues and escape the room. Other experiences such as laser tag, paintball, rock climbing and virtual reality are great for getting a group of friends off their phones, and doing something “extreme” together (which can later be posted on social media).

*Support responsible phone use. Apple and Google both made headlines earlier this year for their efforts to promote responsible phone use. Newer devices provide tools for monitoring, reporting and curtailing use. Every brand has an opportunity to support this initiative within a CSR campaign. Online brands can pro-actively report use, and share resources to encourage responsible use and address addictive behavior.

Meanwhile, "offline” brands can inspire users to “put down their phones” from time to time and, say, explore the great outdoors with North Face clothing, or equipment purchased at REI.

There’s no separating teens from their screens, but brands have many opportunities to help teens get more from them, with fewer negative consequences.

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