Screens and Teens

Feel free to file this under “Also: The sky is blue,” but a new Pew Research study shows video games, social media and mobile phones play an integral role in how teens meet and interact with friends. We already know this, but do we know how far and wide screens reach into our kid’s lives?

Unheard of 20 years ago, but a majority of friendships start digitally for teens these days. Research says that 57% of teens have met a new friend online. Social media and online gameplay are the most common digital venues for meeting friends. 29% of teens indicating that they have made more than five new friends in online venues. Most of these friendships stay in the digital space – only 20% say that they have actually met a “digital” friend in person.

Text messaging is also a key component of day-to-day friend interactions: 55% of teens spend time every day texting with friends.

In my heart, I already knew that video games were huge for boys, but it’s incredibly interesting to actually see the numbers. Video games play a critical role in the development and maintenance of boys’ friendships. Not so much in girls. Fully 84% of boys play video games, significantly higher than the 59% of girls who play games. Playing video games is not necessarily a solitary activity; teens frequently play video games with others. Boys are more likely to use video games to stay in touch with digital friends while girls prefer to stay in touch via texting.

You can find all of this and much more data at the Pew Research article here.

So what does this data tell us? It tells that screens are reaching into our children’s lives deeper than ever before. But we already knew that. Any parent in 2015 does. So what are we doing about it?

Just because your child has “digital” friends in addition to actual friends isn’t necessarily bad. We as parents just need to place more emphasis on real-life relationships versus digital ones. The small issue is that kids view digital relationships just like real ones – they don’t see any difference. We need to help our children understand that there is a difference. Human interaction can only go so far in a digital world.

The digital company that your child is keeping is becoming more and more important. So that means we must keep a watch on who our children are digitally meeting and playing with. Make sure to let them know that it’s very important to actually know your friends online as well as in real life. Strangers could be anyone living behind the curtain of digital anonymity.

Children need to be encouraged to act the same way with friendships digitally as they do in real life. We’ve seen all sorts of sites like Reddit and Engadget shut down their comment sections because things got out of hand. The bottom line is that most people forget how to conduct themselves in the digital landscape because most people see it as a free-for-all for any way they want to act. Make sure your child knows there’s a code of conduct for digital interactions just like real life ones.

I shudder to think about what teens lives will look like in 2020, just 4 short years from now. Kids have become more and more connected and now their real life friendships are overlapping greatly with their actual lives. Soon, there won’t be a distinction. There may not be a distinction now. So what are we doing to foster our children’s digital relationships?

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Chad Landman is the youth minister for the Church Street Church of Christ in Lewisburg, Tennessee where he has served for four years. He and his wife Bonnie have two boys—Jacob and David. Chad writes about technology and Christianity on his website at chadl.co, and talks to other ministers and youth ministers about technology on his podcast called Ministry Bits. He speaks frequently at area churches using his Active Digital Parenting curriculum, now a weekly blog at Start2Finish.org.

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