Teenagers worldwide engage with technology for communication, education, social connections, and entertainment. Technology commonly used by teens includes devices such as smartphones, laptop and desktop computers, digital tablets, smart speakers, virtual reality headsets, and television. Popular activities include sending text and instant messages, taking photos and videos, making sound recordings, and using internet applications for activities such as listening to music, watching online videos, social media, gaming, online shopping, and reading. While technology provides teens with new opportunities for learning and engaging online, some parents, researchers, and health advocates express concerns about the impact of technology on teen development, relationships, health, and safety.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that youth under the age of eighteen make up one-third of all internet users globally. Access varies widely between regions. Most teens in developed countries have internet access, including some 96 percent of European youth between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. Two-thirds of youth in developing countries have access to digital technologies. China and India combined account for 39 percent of all youth internet users worldwide. Less than one-third of youth in Least Developed Countries (LDCs) have internet access. Internet usage for African youth reaches 40 percent on average.
Preference for digital devices and activities varies regionally. The rate of household broadband access is relatively high in the United States and Europe, making computers and digital tablets more commonplace. Despite greater access to computers, many teens in developed countries increasingly spend the bulk of their technology time on smartphones. Access to the internet via mobile smartphones is often more affordable and readily available than fast-speed household connections in the developing world and in LDCs. Though smartphones provide internet access to millions more youth worldwide, lack of computers and high-speed connections creates limitations, and the lack of digital skills or only speaking minority languages also create barriers to content for some users.
Social media and instant messaging mobile applications are very popular around the globe. Nine out of ten youth in the Middle East and North Africa use social media on a daily basis, in a region where children and young adults under the age of thirty account for nearly half of the entire population. KaKaoTalk, an instant messaging app, is widely used in South Korea, which has the highest rate of smartphone usage worldwide. Participation in civic engagement is important to 40 percent of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds in South Africa and some 25 percent in Montenegro and Chile. These teens use the internet to search for resources or neighborhood events.
Influencing the Adolescent Mind
Technology provides numerous benefits to teens. For example, texting and social media facilitate communication with friends and family. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that 81 percent of American teens reported that social media helped them stay more connected to friends. Internet search engines provide easy access to information on sensitive topics they might feel uncomfortable talking about with adults. Behavioral apps can help them stay healthy by promoting positive changes like fitness or scheduling. Listening to streaming music and sharing funny memes or videos can relieve stress. Teens have access to digital tools that can put them in instant direct contact with their own communities as well as people, cultures, and ideas located around the world. However, some health officials express concern about the potential negative effects that pervasive technology can have on teenagers.
Researchers are studying how technology affects cognition as well as psychological, social, and emotional development in teens. While some of the effects can be positive, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)notes that overuse of technology and a lack of safe boundaries can be detrimental to teen well-being. Health officials in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany recommend less than two hours of daily recreational screen time for adolescents. In a 2019 report released by Common Sense Media, the average teen in the United States spends between five to seven hours per day on screen media for entertainment purposes and around forty minutes on homework. The average time American teens spent viewing online videos doubled between 2015 to 2019, reaching an hour a day. During that same period, the average time that American teens spent engaging on social media remained the same, at just over an hour per day. According to the OECD, heavy screen time has been linked to poor sleep quality, which can lead to depression and anxiety. Excessive screen time has been linked to increased stress, lack of exercise, and weight gain.
Video games are a frequent point of contention between parents and teens. Another 2018 Pew Research Center survey revealed that 90 percent of U.S. teens played games on a computer, game console, or cell phone, and 26 percent believed they spent too much time playing games; many were attempting to reduce the amount of time they spend on games. Critics argue that an obsession with video games can have negative effects on teens. A 2019 study published by Frontiers in Psychology revealed a direct link between teen exposure to violent video games and aggression. In June 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) introduced "gaming disorders" as a new mental health condition in the International Classification of Diseases, the standard by which health practitioners diagnose diseases and other health conditions. The diagnostic characteristics include poor impulse control, impaired social interactions, and compulsive gaming to the point that it takes precedence over most other activities. Critics called the diagnostic criteria too broad and feared it could result in other types of common behavior done in excess to be labeled a disorder. Gaming advocates point out that avid young players tend to register higher cognitive performance and better-than-average mental abilities as well as increased cognitive flexibility, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills.
Access to technology, especially a smartphone, is an essential and habitual part of daily life for many teens. However, constant and impulsive use can become problematic when it interferes with relationships, school performance, and health. Some critics believe that an unhealthy dependency on technology is a parenting issue, while others believe this fits the criteria for a behavioral disorder. Engaging with technology to the point that it negatively disrupts daily life and causes symptoms including depression, anxiety, euphoria, mood swings, social isolation, and physical deterioration is called "internet addiction," or internet use disorder (IUD) by psychologists. This is a broad category that includes gaming disorders as well as compulsive online shopping or social media use. The WHO does not recognize IUD as an official diagnosis. Researchers note, however, that some smartphone apps and video games are designed to trigger the brain's reward system, leading to compulsive behavior. Researchers found that adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are especially vulnerable to IUD.
Global research firm GFK released the result of an international survey in July 2017 showing that teens and young adults, especially those in higher-income households, were most susceptible to technology addiction. Among those aged fifteen to nineteen years old, 44 percent admitted they had difficulty taking a break from technology, even when they knew they should. Chinese, Brazilian, and Argentinian tech users had the most difficulty "unplugging," while tech users in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium reported that it was easy for them to take a break. Smartphone usage is nearly universal among South Korean teenagers. The government reported in 2018 that 30 percent of ten- to nineteen-year-olds were obsessed with their smartphones. The government runs detox camps to treat teen internet addiction and broadened these programs in 2015 to include smartphone addiction. The health ministry of Japan reported in 2018 that nearly one million teenage students in their country showed signs of internet addiction.
Cyberbullying, Sexting, and Safety
According to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), technology can intensify and heighten childhood risks and create avenues for harming vulnerable populations that are also difficult to police and eradicate. Teens can become victims of digital abuse, digital dating abuse, or textual harassment. A bully or abusive partner might send repeated text messages to intimidate or emotionally abuse the victim. Sometimes, this includes online stalking and posting unwanted messages on social media sites. Online chat rooms and social media networks put young people at a real risk of contact with sexual predators. Teenagers may not be aware that they are being manipulated. Abused children can become further victimized when images of sexual abuse proliferate on the internet, becoming impossible to remove.
Risky teen behavior involving technology can also lead to emotional or psychological harm and even cause legal problems. Sexting, or sending sexually explicit messages, photographs, or cartoons via smartphone or other device, is particularly worrisome to parents and law enforcement agencies. A 2018 report published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that about one-quarter of teens in the United States admitted to sexting at least once. Though some countries do not consider it an offense, in England and in parts of Australia and the United States, distributing photos of unclothed, underage people is considered child sexual abuse material (CSAM, or "child pornography"). This designation applies even if the photo was distributed willingly by the subject in the photo and even when both the sender and recipient are underage. According to the Guardian newspaper, between January 2017 and August 2019, law enforcement in England and Wales investigated 6,500 children under the age of fourteen for sexting.