New Survey Exposes Social Norms Students Navigate With Social Media and Tech

Laura Tierney
February 20, 2020

If I could convey one important concept to parents about students and social media, it would be to drop that last word -- “media” -- from your mindset. Social media is simply how students today socialize. Yet students are taught that social platforms are only dangerous and adults lecture students on the Don'ts, not the Do's.

In our work with students, we take a different approach, and look at social media through a positive lens, challenging students to use it for good -- to connect with coaches and colleges, meet mentors, and lift up friends in need. In The Social Institute’s recent nationwide survey of 13,000+ students from both independent and public schools, we learned some interesting facts about students’ social media and technology use.

Among the survey’s key findings:

  • Snapchat is the preferred app for 9th through 12th graders, while 6th through 8th graders prefer YouTube to all other apps.
  • Instagram was ranked as the second most popular app for both groups.
  • When it comes to cell phone ownership, less than half of 5th graders report having their own phone (42 percent), and that number steadily increases each year until 9th grade, where 98 percent of students have their own phone.



When it comes to how students are navigating social media and technology, schools have an opportunity to lean into positive peer influence to strengthen their culture and students’ character and decision-making. We’re finding that a percentage of students within each school understand how to navigate social media positively, and that understanding strengthens as they progress from 5th to 12th grade. Schools are leveraging that insight to help empower the full student body to make positive, high character choices. For example, 12th graders are mentoring 10th graders, and 6th graders are taking their cues from 8th graders.

Other key student findings include:

  • 56 percent of 9th through 12th grade students say they are likely to speak up if someone is using their phone while driving
  • 66 percent of 5th grade students say they have not signed a technology contract at home
  • 29 percent of 6th grade students say they “almost never” talk with a trusted adult about what they experience on social platforms (including texting, gaming, and social media)

The Social Institute also asked students what they wish their parents knew about social media and technology:

  • “Not all of it is all bad and that it could be used for more purposes other than entertainment”
  • “You can create a private account that only you and your friends can see”
  • “How to use emojis correctly”
  • “Sometimes technology helps bring kids closer together and spreads news and awareness”
  • “Not all of it is inappropriate”
  • “You can’t pause online games”
  • “Just because they heard bad things about social media doesn’t mean we follow the trend”
  • “It is not our entire lives, but it is a big part of us; it’s different than their childhood, and that’s OK”

Social media is here to stay, thankfully. It can be a force for good in our lives -- a force that unlocks opportunity, inspiration, friendship, and more. New apps will come and go, but what should remain steady and timeless is the positive decision-making that we equip students to have across any social media account or platform they use.

Written by

Laura Tierney

Laura Tierney is the Founder and CEO of The Social Institute, empowering students and their role models to navigate social media and technology in positive, high character ways. Within two years, her team’s unique gamified social media curriculum, co-created with over 50,000 students at 60 schools nationwide, has been touted as the gold standard in the country. Their positive, student-led approach has been applauded by Melinda Gates on Twitter and featured by The Washington Post, NPR, and USA Today.