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Too often when writing about what teenagers like, we neglect to talk to the most important group of all: teens. So we decided to put together a State of the Union on the American teenager. To learn what American teenagers in 2016 really like, and what they don’t, we polled about 60 of them from across the US. We spoke with teens ages 13 to 19, in middle school, high school, and college.
We asked them about their digital lives and habits, the apps they use and the games they play, pop culture, and politics. Their answers offer a glimpse into what it’s like being a teenager in 2016. We’ve drawn out the highlights below, along with some data from other sources, so keep scrolling for our guide to teenagers in 2016.
Who did we talk to?
For our survey on American teenagers, we talked to a group of about 60 teenagers from across the US, of various socioeconomic classes, grades, and ages. We didn’t want to focus on one particular geographic area, so we talked to teenagers from across the country, including California, Colorado, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania.
Every teen we spoke with owned a smartphone, and most owned or regularly used a variety of devices, like gaming consoles, tablets, and desktop computers.
Teens get their first smartphone when they’re 11.
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On average, the teens we spoke with received smartphones from their parents when they were 11 years old. At their youngest, they received phones when they were 8; at the other end, one teen’s parents made her wait until she was 16 before she got a phone.
Teens are shy to talk about how much time they spend on their phones, but it’s a lot.
We got lots of “too many” and “I’m embarrassed to say” responses, but the numbers we were able to get suggested teens spend about six hours a day on their phones. (This is both in and out of school.)
And they’re spending lots of time in front of other screens, too.
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Besides owning smartphones, most teens we talked to spent time in front of television sets and gaming consoles (PlayStation 4 and Wii were popular answers) as well. Some also used desktop computers.
On average, they said they spent 11 hours in front of screens every day — answers ranged from two hours to 18 hours, which sounds as if it would be literally every waking moment (and maybe it is).
Teens aren’t only spending a ton of time online — they’re shopping online too.
Clothing has been relatively immune to the rise of e-commerce because people still like to try things on before buying.
But when it comes to teenage shoppers, the option of being able to try on clothing before buying is becoming less important, according to a survey conducted by Piper Jaffray in 2015.
Only 61% of US teens say they prefer to shop for clothing online from retailers that also operate their own brick-and-mortar stores. That’s a significant drop from the 81% of teens last spring who said they preferred to shop at omnichannel fashion (or cross-channel) retailers.
What are teens’ favorite apps? Here are a few of the most popular answers:
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The most popular by a landslide: Snapchat.
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It’s no surprise that teenagers love Snapchat. Here’s what they had to say about it:
- “It’s how I communicate with most of my friends and it’s fun.” — 15-year-old
- “Snapchat because it’s pretty much just texting, but with pictures of my beautiful face ” — 16-year-old
- “Snapchat, because it is fun to send your friends what you’re doing, and where you are in a fast and easy way. I also like being able to make stories, for all of my friends to see, and I also enjoy seeing stories of my friends on it and see what they’re up to.” — 17-year-old
Spotify was almost universally heralded as the best music app, and it was also listed as a favorite app by a lot of respondents.
Teenagers almost universally named Spotify as their preferred music-streaming service — and some teenagers said it was the best app on their phone overall:
- “I use it to share music, to see what my friends are listening to, and to find new music.” — 14-year-old
Instagram was another favorite.
Instagram is a standby favorite of teens, who swear by its filters and direct-message feature. Here’s what they said:
- “I use Instagram to message my friends funny pictures I see on Instagram.” — 15-year-old
- “Snapchat and Instagram, I love sharing photos all of the things I do and places I go. I also like seeing what others are up to.” — 15-year-old
The dark horse: Twitter.
You might not expect Twitter to be among teens’ favorite apps. After all, the company is having a hard time attracting new users. But a lot of teenagers we talked to really liked the platform. Here what they had to say:
- “Twitter because I can update everyone all the time quickly and it’s not annoying like Facebook.” — 17-year-old
- Twitter because “you can voice your opinion on anything you want to and you can somewhat interact with celebrities.” — 18-year-old
- “My favorite app is Twitter because I am the kind of person who needs to get out my thoughts, and Twitter may be like shouting into the void but at least I am heard and often validated by my peers.” — 19-year-old
Absent from the list: Facebook.
The teens we talked to said they and their friends were still using Facebook — but it wasn’t their favorite app. Here’s why:
- “I use Facebook, but I feel like I can’t be myself on it because my parents and my friends’ parents are my Facebook friends.” — 16-year-old
- “It’s mostly outdated.” — 14-year-old
- “Facebook is good for group events and things but it’s definitely not my favorite app.” — 15-year-old
We also asked which apps were just flat-out uncool.
- Google+. “I don’t even really know a time where Google+ was a thing.” — 16-year-old
- Whisper. “People just don’t use it anymore.” — 17-year-old
- Vine. “I watch Vine videos, but me and my friends don’t have accounts or make our own videos, same with YouTube.” — 16-year-old
This pretty much lines up with what teens across the board are saying.
Most of the teens we talked to wouldn’t acknowledge having fake Instagram (“finsta”) accounts.
For the uninitiated, a finsta is a portmanteau of the words “fake” and “Instagram.” You use it for posting embarrassing or less aesthetically pleasing pictures you wouldn’t want to share with all of your friends.
Eighty percent of the teens we talked to had no idea what a finsta was, and 92% said they didn’t have one.
“I did have a finsta with a friend, but we don’t use it anymore because it got too confusing to know which account you were on, to make sure we were posting on the right one, and not posting on the wrong one by accident,” one 16-year-old told us.
“A lot of my friends still have them and use them. A finsta is a fake Instagram account people use to post funny pictures they wouldn’t normally post for everyone to see. Usually on a finsta you only have your closer friends follow, so you can post embarrassing pictures of yourself without having everyone you’ve ever talked to see them.”
Facebook may be dead to teens, but a surprising number of them are texting their friends through Facebook Messenger.
The most common form of messaging among teenagers in our survey was iMessage or SMS messaging (100% of the teens we talked to used one or both of those). But Facebook Messenger was mentioned almost as frequently — 80% of teenagers we spoke with said they used Facebook Messenger as a primary or secondary form of communicating with friends. Less popular were WhatsApp, Kik, and Snapchat text.
Overwhelmingly, three phones are most popular with the teenagers we talked to: the iPhone 5S, the iPhone 6, and the Samsung Galaxy S5.
Eighty percent of the teenagers we talked to had one of these three phones.
Teenagers are watching both cable and streaming services like Netflix — but there’s one clear winner.
And that’s Netflix. Hulu and Amazon were also listed by a lot of the teens we spoke with, but Netflix had the lion’s share.
Here’s why, in the words of a couple of the teenagers we spoke with:
- “My family has cable and Netflix and Hulu, but for me all I watch is Netflix. I know my parents will watch the news and sometimes a show on cable, but they also mostly use Netflix or Hulu to watch shows and movies. I use Netflix more then Hulu because there aren’t commercials on Netflix. I only use Hulu when I miss an episode of a show because it will be on there fast.” — 17-year-old
- “Netflix is life.” — 16-year-old
Here’s what teens are watching on TV (it’s mostly Netflix and Netflix-like services).
Over one-half of US children and teenagers ages 8 to 18 in a PwC survey preferred streaming television to all other types of media.
We asked teens to identify the coolest app, website, or thing on the internet that adults probably didn’t know about.
We got a fair number of responses from teens who thought Twitter, Tumblr, and Snapchat were cool (and they are!) and that adults didn’t know about them (but they do!).
But we found a few responses genuinely surprising.
Several teens brought this app to our attention. We first wrote about After School, a social network created specifically for high-school students, when it launched and started gaining traction in late 2014.
If you’re nervous thinking about the kinds of stuff teenagers would post anonymously on a social network, you’re not alone. Millions of teens are using it to post their “deepest anxieties, secret crushes, vulgar assessments of their classmates, and even violent threats,” according to The Washington Post.
You’ve probably never heard of Musical.ly, but it has already cracked the top 20 in Apple’s App Store. The app has quietly grown to its popular status without any press. Musical.ly lets you make music videos of yourself or of other people. It may not seem like a particularly compelling value proposition, but 10 of the 60 teens we spoke with listed Musical.ly as the app they were most excited about and doubted adults would know about.
Remember when you were a kid and you colored in coloring books? Color Therapy is a stress-relieving, digital coloring book for adults, and the teens we talked to swore by it.
Launched by the Los Angeles venture-capital firm Science’s mobile studio, Wishbone shows you two options and lets you vote on which one you like more — a spin on the popular “Would you rather?” hypothetical question.
Wishbone became somewhat of a viral teen phenomenon, and as of September, just months after it launched, Wishbone had been downloaded 3 million times.
You have probably never heard of the Japanese game “Neko Atsume,” but numerous teens we talked to were obsessed with it. The game’s name literally translates to “cat collecting,” and that’s exactly what you do in the adorable game.
Speaking of games, a bunch of teens also mentioned “Color Switch.” In this game, you must follow each color pattern you’re shown on each obstacle to progress.
We asked teens to name the coolest celebrities.
Some of the more popular names included Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon, 5 Seconds of Summer, Kanye West, DJ Khaled, Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner, Ruby Rose, One Direction, “Hamilton” creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, Drake, and Nicki Minaj.
Yes, the star of the Broadway musical “Hamilton” was named in the same breath as Drake and One Direction. That’s him in this picture.
But teens consider YouTube and Vine stars celebrities too.
And most we talked to named a bunch they liked. Interestingly, a lot of the teens we spoke with — the majority, 75% — told us they didn’t have or use YouTube or Vine accounts, but they use both services voyeuristically just to watch the videos.
There tends to be a lot of overlap between YouTube and Vine stars. Favorites include: Brendon Urie, Shawn Mendes, Connor Franta, Troye Sivan, Tyler Oakley, Miranda Sings, Shane Dawson, Logan Paul, Lele Pons, Josh Peck, Jenna Marbles, Manny MUA, Ethan and Grayson Dolan, Alx James, Grace Helbig, Mamrie Hart, Hannah Hart, and Rosanna Pansino.
There was just one media company teens said they were obsessed with.
Lara O’Reilly/Business Insider
We didn’t flat-out ask what media teens are consuming, but in their answers about their favorite Viners and what they did online, 30% of teens we spoke with mentioned BuzzFeed, BuzzFeed Video, Tasty (the BuzzFeed food video Facebook page), and BuzzFeed’s quizzes.
But as far as slang goes, “Anything is very uncool as soon as BuzzFeed gets it.”
That’s what one teen told us when we asked about what slang teens were using. The teen we were talking to was specifically referring words like “bae” (the term of endearment meaning “before anyone else”) and phrases like “on fleek.”
“Nobody has a better bull—t detector than a teenager does,” Taylor Trudon, an editor at MTV News and a bona fide teen expert, told us. Trudon is launching a new platform for MTV News called Voices, a for-teens-and-by-teens community, so she knows a thing or two about teenagers. “They can tell when you’re not being authentic.”
So what slang *is* cool, by teens’ standards?
Well, here’s what they told us. Most of these are no-brainers if you have kids or even just sit around on the internet for any length of time.
- “I use YASSSSSSSS a lot when I get really excited and don’t really realize it. I also like slay, even though I know that’s kind of stupid.”
- “Regularly use: hype (as in ‘I’m so hype for this’), mad, dope, low key/high key, lit. Uncool: on fleek, bae, fire, etc.”
- “Goals. You might look at a beautiful celebrity or your favorite couple and say they are goals.”
- “Me and my friends use Gucci and squad and #goals a lot but in a joking manner. The ones that are uncool are on fleek and holla @ me.”
- “I regularly say v instead of very (ex: ‘She’s v aesthetic’) and ‘it’s lit.'”
- “‘Throw shade/spill tea’ — talk negatively about someone or gossip. ‘Read‘ — make a judgment.”
- “I normally use flames or lit to sound cool. We need to stop saying bae and on fleek.”
Then, just for fun, we asked a couple of other questions. First up: What do you think about the Kardashians?
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Before you abandon all hope for humanity, read their rather rational responses.
- “I don’t really pay attention to them because there’s always something negative going on with them. Except for Kendall — she stays out of it and I like her for that, even though she’s not a Kardashian.”
- “I dislike how prominent they are.”
- “I dislike the Kardashians. They are currently taking over our generation.”
- “I think they are a bunch of spoiled rich people who are cocky and don’t deserve much, but they are face and body goals.”
- “I don’t know much about them, but I feel like society shames them for all of the wrong reasons.”
Next: Whom would you vote for in the 2016 election, if you could pick any candidate?
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont won by a landslide (55% of respondents said they’d vote for him).
Also popular: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz.
Finally, we asked teens to send us their homescreens so we could take a look at what their phones looked like. Scroll through to see what apps are on teens’ phones.
So, what are today’s teens like?
From generation to generation, some things about teens remain consistent. Staving off FOMO (fear of missing out) and finding ways to connect and share memories with your peers is essential regardless of when you were a teenager.
But teens today seem more aware of current events and pop culture, and this is probably because they have so many ways to be connected to real-time news and other information outlets.
“This generation grew up using iPads,” MTV’s Trudon told me. Teens today, she said, are “a lot smarter than they’re given credit for.”