Today, just about everyone is on Facebook.
But the social networking site was once a meeting place only for young adults.
Perhaps it’s that history that links social media with youth, even as digital communication becomes commonplace.
Or it could be the fact that young people spend so much time online.
According to Pew research, almost all teens surveyed in 2015 reported going online every day, with more than a quarter saying they were online “almost constantly.”
Among adults, three quarters of those polled said they went online daily, and about a fifth reported using the internet many times a day.
But what exactly are today’s kids doing on social media?
It may look a little different than what their parents are doing, or those lumped into the millennial generation.
First, teens in what is loosely called generation Z are likely using different platforms than other age groups.
Although Facebook still rules in terms of number of users, teens overwhelmingly prefer newer platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, according to a poll released this spring.
That’s not what most of them are looking for in the digital world, said Monica Anderson, a researcher at Pew Research Center.
“A lot of these kids aren’t at the stage to meet a romantic partner,” she told Healthline.
In fact, only a third of teens in that survey had had any experience, online or otherwise, with dating or sex. But social media was still important for their friendships.
In fact, the very behavior that might seem silly or self-absorbed to outsiders is, for many teens, a way to build themselves a support system.
Like one young woman who participated in one of Anderson’s focus groups.
“[She’ll] wake up and she’s in this group chat with ten of her friends,” she said. “They all send around videos and this is them talking before she even brushes her teeth in the morning.”
Even playing video games is a way for young people, especially boys, to strengthen friendships. Another Pew poll found that 78 percent of teen online gamers said it made them feel more connected to the friends they played with, whether those friends were in the same room or not.
“Teens are able to connect with each other in a way they hadn’t been able to do prior to this,” she said.
Friendships and secrets
The digital world is where a lot of teens go when they need help from friends.
It can also be a place to share secrets with strangers.
For example, Instagram users who self-harm reach each other with secret hashtags, which evolve as the company’s moderators find and ban them in a kind of cat and mouse game.
And the anonymous secret-sharing app Whisper is particularly popular among young adults. Teens are officially restricted from signing up.
Much of this online commiserating is superficial. But many teens form real friendships online. According to Pew, more than half who were surveyed reported making a friend online.
While that may frighten parents, only a sliver of those online friendships resulted in face-to-face meetings. Young people may be savvier about digital safety than adults realize.
In a Pew survey of online privacy habits, young adults were the most adept at protecting their anonymity on the internet. Although that report didn’t survey teens, it does seem that teens are skilled at cultivating the online presence they want.
According to a Wired reporter who “embedded” with high schoolers across the country, teens are careful about how they use social media.
Facebook has become a place for them to build a version of themselves that would be acceptable to relatives and college admissions officers, not a place to post inappropriate pictures of themselves.
That’s reserved for other media that weren’t available back when Facebook had fewer competitors.
Like Snapchat. Snapchat, an app that’s distinguishing feature is messages and images that disappear, is particularly popular among teens.
So is Instagram. Although Instagram images don’t vanish the way Snapchat images do, teens will often delete old images to curate a lean, curated feed, according to Wired.
What does the future hold?
Even the youngest teenager today was born before Facebook started.
How will young children, who grew up in a world that accepts online networking as a given, use social media?
It’s hard for researchers to make predictions when the landscape changes so quickly and dramatically.
New technology naturally inspires fears and reservations. But we don’t really know what’s good and what’s bad for kids, and it’s hard for scientists to keep up.
For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics once recommended absolutely no screen time for children under the age of 2. Now, it suggests that parents follow a “media diet,” allowing kids access to digital media but being thoughtful about when, where, and how much.
Some have suggested this upcoming cohort be named “Generation Alpha,” a group marked by its unprecedented exposure to the digital world.
"Generation Alpha is part of an unintentional global experiment where screens are placed in front of them from the youngest age as pacifiers, entertainers, and educational aids.” Mark McCrindle, a consultant in Australia, told the New York Times last year.
If teens today are any indication, they’ll find a way to shape that technology into whatever they want — for better or worse.