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Report offers 'road map' for how teen girls experience social media

FILE - In this July 27, 2015, photo, a teenager uses social media on her cellphone. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
FILE - In this July 27, 2015, photo, a teenager uses social media on her cellphone. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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A new report found social media to be a mixed bag for teenage girls, with certain common features taking more blame than any one platform for negative experiences.

Common Sense Media surveyed more than 1,300 girls to form "a current and comprehensive road map to understanding teen girls' online lives," according to Director of Research Supreet Mann.

"We wanted to have a better sense of what they're doing, where they go, how all of it makes them feel, along with the features that they love and the features that they wish could be different," she said.

They focused on five popular platforms: YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat and messaging apps such as WhatsApp.

YouTube emerged as a mostly positive platform. But TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat were fairly similar in perception. One wasn't that much better or worse than another, Mann said.

Certain features, however, got low marks.

Girls were most likely to say that location sharing (45%) and public accounts (33%) have had a mostly negative effect on them compared to other features.

But even those features aren’t absolutely bad, as some girls said location sharing helps them keep in touch with friends or keep friends safe, Mann said.

"We're not painting broad strokes about one platform being good or bad," she said. "It's that there are these nuances."

Social media use is nearly universal among teens, with 98% of the girls in this survey saying they’ve participated.

YouTube is the most widely used at 85% of respondents.

Over half of the girls in this survey use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat regularly.

And they’re spending a lot of time on these apps. Girls say they spend over two hours daily on TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat.

Girls who used TikTok were more likely to report feeling addicted to the platform (45%) compared to users on the other platforms. But only 16% said their life would be better if TikTok went away.

There are good things about social media, according to teens.

More than two of three girls reported having fun or being entertained with these apps.

Social media is also seen positively as an outlet for self-expression, discovery, exploring interests and social activism.

Features that were mostly seen as positive included video recommendations and private messaging.

Social media’s effects can differ or be more extreme for some groups.

Both the good and bad are amplified for teens with moderate to severe depressive symptoms, Mann said.

“So, for those teens, they were more likely to report maybe feelings of addiction and things like that, disruption with sleep, but they were also more likely to report finding community,” Mann said. “We found similar things for those who are LGBTQ+, that they're more likely to report coming across hateful content, for example, but they're also more likely to report connecting with others with similar identities to themselves.”

Much has been made of social media’s negative contributions to body image issues.

Roughly one in three girls who use TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat say they feel bad about their body at least weekly when using those platforms, according to the report.

But nearly twice as many say they feel good or accepting of their bodies at least weekly while using those apps.

Mann said it’s encouraging that girls are having more positive body image experiences than negative ones online, but she also said it’s important to address how social media can feed into the problem.

This report, released Thursday, is a key part of Common Sense Media’s new "Healthy Young Minds" campaign. The multiyear initiative will be focused on building understanding and finding solutions for the youth mental health crisis.

Mann said girls are savvy about the dangers of social media.

She hopes these teen voices resonate with social media companies and that feature changes can make these apps safer and more enjoyable for girls.

And Mann said teens should be part of the conversation, along with parents, educators and lawmakers.

“I think girls realize all the negatives here, but I think they also struggle with when these negatives do truly outweigh the positives,” she said.

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