At the Core of Gen Z

Gauging How Digital Usage Fits into Teens’ Lives and Buying Habits

Executive Summary

Marketers who target teens may wonder what sort of audience they’re addressing. Are teens the emotional walking wounded of the digital era, deeply stressed by smartphone and social usage? Or have digital tools empowered them to live fuller lives?

Are teens as much in thrall to digital as popular stereotypes suggest?

Nearly all use the internet, but one survey shows a majority of teens claiming (correctly or otherwise) to spend less than 2 hours a day online. A large majority have smartphones, but teens (defined as those ages 12 to 17) lag behind millennials (ages 23 to 38) and Gen Xers (39 to 54) in penetration. Many have added Snapchat and Instagram to their mix without abandoning Facebook. They’ve incorporated ecommerce into their shopping but haven’t stopped using physical stores and cash.

Do teens have a sense of digital overload?

Many do. One survey found nearly half of those ages 15 to 18 felt “addicted” to their mobile devices; about six in 10 awake during the night to check their social feeds. While sentiment toward social is largely positive, nearly half feel “overwhelmed” by the drama.

So, is digital causing an epidemic of teen stress and depression?

Evidence is mixed. Plenty of teens do suffer emotional woes. Some studies by academic researchers point to correlations between the emergence of smartphones and social media and a rise in mental health problems among teens. But there’s pushback from other experts, who cast doubt on the degree to which digital usage causes emotional distress.

How about cyberbullying? Is it really a major affliction for teens?

Teens themselves say it is. In one survey, 55% rated it a major problem for people in their age group. Then again, the typical teen experience doesn’t match the worst-case horror stories.

WHAT’S IN THIS REPORT? This report will assess teens’ usage of smartphones, social media, ecommerce and other digital technologies. It will examine the debate on whether digital is harming teens’ well-being and will gauge the extent of cyberbullying.

KEY STAT: There’s clearly a lot of emotional stress among today’s teens. What’s less clear is whether their usage of social media and other digital technology is a significant cause of the problem.

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Table of Contents

  1. Executive Summary
  2. Thriving or Barely Surviving? (Or Neither?)
  3. Gauging the Scope of Teens’ Digital Usage
  4. Untangling the Patterns of Teens’ Social Media Usage
  1. Does Digital Deserve Blame for Teens’ Emotional Woes?
  2. Beyond the Horror Stories About Cyberbullying
  3. Key Takeaways
  4. eMarketer Interviews
  1. Read Next
  2. Sources
  3. Media Gallery

Charts in This Report

Interviewed for This Report

Bill Carter
Interviewed September 11, 2019
Liz Cole
Digitas North America
Vice President and Group Director, Social Strategy
Interviewed September 12, 2019
Daniel Keating
University of Michigan
Professor of Psychology, Institute for Social Research
Interviewed October 17, 2019
Mike Olson
Piper Jaffray
Managing Director, Senior Research Analyst
Interviewed October 16, 2019
Haley Paas
Carat USA
Senior Vice President, Head of Strategy and Insights
Interviewed September 10, 2019
Justin Patchin
Cyberbullying Research Center
Interviewed October 14, 2019
Michael Robb
Common Sense
Senior Director, Research
Interviewed October 15, 2019

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Mark Dolliver


Lucy Koch
Junior Analyst
Jennifer Pearson
VP, Research
Monica Peart
Senior Director, Forecasting
Shelleen Shum
Senior Director, Forecasting
Debra Aho Williamson
Principal Analyst
Yoram Wurmser
Principal Analyst

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