Some of our most interesting findings had to do with teens’ use of technology. When the pandemic hit and quarantine began, teens were unable to spend time with friends or fellow students face-to-face. Electronic communication became the primary way teens could interact with people outside of their families. Given that screen time, especially time spent using social media, has been associated with mental-health issues in teens, we wanted to understand how technology affected their mental health in quarantine.
To our surprise, teens’ technology use did not appear to increase dramatically during the pandemic when compared with 2018. Teens in quarantine were spending more time videochatting with friends and watching TV, videos, and movies on an electronic device. But they spent less time gaming, texting, and using social media.
We were surprised that social media, which is more connective, decreased, while passively watching television and videos increased during that same time. Teens might have primarily been using media as a form of distraction or to pass the long hours in quarantine, rather than predominantly seeking out more virtual connection with others. These trends are consistent with our findings regarding mental health, given that social-media use is more strongly associated with mental-health issues than are more passive types of media such as watching television or videos.
Of course, the line between connective and passive media is blurrier now than it once was. For example, YouTube, which is primarily a video-sharing site, is now social media, where users create and post videos, receive “response” videos in return, and comment on videos in an interactive way. In fact, a rising number of social-media apps integrate video into their connectivity. Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook, for instance, were all originally photo- and message-sharing apps that now have video posting and sharing as main components. These sites/apps are often passively entertaining and connective. So teens might have been specifically using TV and videos as a twofold way to cope with pandemic-related anxiety.
Another possible reason for the rise in video watching and videochatting online, and the decrease in texting, is that students on school campuses usually can’t stream videos or videochat during the day, as this would be disruptive of the school environment. But they often will text throughout the school day, as this form of connection is quick and silent. Teens also use the messaging features within video-rich apps in lieu of old-fashioned texting.
However, none of these interpretations minimizes the happy fact that teens were also sleeping more and spending more time with siblings and parents (including playing family games, going outside more with family, and eating family dinners), which might have displaced some of the time they would have spent using media.