June 21, 2001

Teenage Life Online

The Internet has a pivotal role in the lives of American teenagers

About 17 million youth ages 12 through 17 use the Internet. That represents 73% of those in this age bracket. Teenagers’ use of the Internet plays a major role in their relationships with their friends, their families, and their schools. Teens and their parents generally think use of the Internet enhances the social life and academic work of children. However, there are aspects of the Internet that cause strain and make children and their parents worry that these technologies are not an unqualified good in teens’ lives.

  • 76% of online teens say they would miss the Internet if they could no longer go online.
  • 48% say their use of the Internet improves their relationship with friends; 32% say Internet tools help them make new friends.
  • 55% of parents with online teens think that the Internet is a good thing for their own children; just 6% say it has been a bad thing.
  • 55% of parents believe that it is essential for today’s children to learn how to use the Internet in order to be successful and another 40% believe it is important.
  • 64% of online teens say they think use of the Internet takes away from the time young people spend with their families.

The instant-message generation

Close to 13 million teenagers use instant messaging and this techno-communication has a key place in many of their lives. Talking to buddies online has become the information-age way for teens to hang out and beat back boredom. For most online teens, instant messaging has not replaced the telephone as the principle communications tool they use with their friends. But a fifth of online teens do say that IM (instant messaging) is the main way they deal with friends. A typical IM session for a teenager lasts more than a half hour, involves three or more buddies, and often includes friends from outside her community. And significant numbers of youth have used instant messages for serious kinds of communications such as telling their friends unpleasant things or starting and ending relationships.

  • 74% of online teens use instant messaging. In comparison, 44% of online adults have used IM.
  • 69% of teen instant messagers use IM at least several times a week.
  • 19% of online teens say they use IM most often to contact their friends when they are not with them; and 8% use email. 71% still use the phone most often.
  • 37% have used IM to write something that they would not have said in person.
  • 17% of instant messagers have used IMs to ask someone out; 13% have used instant messaging to break up with someone.
  • 57% have blocked messages from someone they did not want to hear from and 64% have refused to respond to instant messages from someone they were mad at.
  • 22% of online teens who use instant messaging and email have shared their password with a friend.

Many teens manage and play with their online identities

Most online teens use different screen names and email accounts to manage their communications and the information that comes to them. Significant numbers also say they pretend to be different people and that they have been given false information by others. A quarter of online teens have built their own Web pages.

  • 56% of online teens have more than one email address or screen name. Within this group of those who use multiple accounts, 24% say that one of those addresses or screen names is a secret one they use when they do not want their buddies to know they are online.
  • 24% of teens who have used IMs and email or been to chat rooms have pretended to be a different person when they were communicating online.
  • 33% of these teens report having someone give them fake information about themselves in an email or instant message.
  • 15% of online teens and 25% of older boys online have lied about their age to access a Web site – an act that often is used to gain access to pornography sites.
  • 24% of online teens have created their own Web pages.

At times, parents and teens don’t see eye to eye about the Internet and their family

Parents and their children often do not agree about the place of the Internet in their home. Many parents say they enforce time limits on their children’s use of the Internet, but most teens do not say they have limits. Many parents say they occasionally check up on the Web sites their children have visited, but most teens do not think that happens. And many parents say they have sat with their children while they were online at least at some point, but teens do not report that. There is also disagreement about how dangerously tempting the online world is.

  • 61% of parents say they have rules about Internet use, while only 37% of teens themselves reported being subject to any Internet time-use strictures.
  • 61% of parents report checking to see what Web sites their teen has visited after the child went online, while only 27% of online teens believe they have been checked on.
  • 68% of parents say they have sat with their children when they were online, but just 48% of their children recall such episodes.
  • 45% of parents are concerned that the Internet leads young people to do dangerous or harmful things, while 34% of their children say that.

At times, the role of the Internet at home generates struggles.

  • 40% of parents have had an argument about the Internet with their children.

But there are times when parents and teens do see eye to eye

Both generations agree that teens know more than their parents about the Internet. They also agree that there are reasons for concern about the impact of the Internet on all teens.

  • 64% of online teens say they know more about the Internet than their parents, and 66% of parents agree.
  • 67% of parents are worried about the distracting qualities of the Net and say it keeps young people in general (not just their own children) from doing more important things; 62% of teens also say they fear that use of the Internet keeps young people from doing more important things.

Meeting strangers online

Some 57% of parents worry that strangers will contact their children online. These worries are well grounded. Close to 60% of teens have received an instant message or an email from a stranger and 50% report emailing or instant messaging with someone they have not met before. Despite this, teens themselves are not particularly worried about strangers online; 52% of online teens say they do not worry at all about being contacted online and only 23% express any notable level of concern.

How parents respond

In addition to checking up on their children and sitting down with them on occasion while they are online, parents have tried to take other precautions.

  • 70% of online families have the Internet-connected computer located in an open family area of the house such as a den.
  • 41% of families have installed filters or activated ISP-based controls on their computer to restrict their child’s access to some kinds of content on the Web.

The Internet helps at school

A tenth of American teens (11%) get their primary or only access to the Internet through their school. There is strong agreement among parents and teens that use of the Internet helps youth at school.

  • 87% of parents believe the Internet helps their children in school; 78% of teens agree.
  • 94% of online teens report using the Internet to research for school.
  • 71% say they relied mostly on Internet sources for the last big project they did for school.

Online material is a teaching tool outside school, too

In addition to being a key resource for school, material on the Web teaches children in other ways. It helps establish their tastes and fills in their gaps of knowledge on sensitive subjects.

  • 54% of online teens think the Net helps them find out what is cool in fashion or music.
  • 26% say the Internet helps them get information about things that are hard to talk to other people about.

What teens have done online

Not all teens use the Internet in the same way

There are significant differences between how boys and girls use the Internet and how young teens and older teens use the Internet. And, just as in the case of adults, experience with the Internet matters. Those who have more experience use the Internet differently from those who are newcomers to the online world. Several tables showing these online differences appear on pages 37-41.

Cite this publication: Amanda Lenhart, Oliver Lewis and Lee Rainie. “Teenage Life Online.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (June 21, 2001) http://www.pewinternet.org/2001/06/21/teenage-life-online/, accessed on July 22, 2014.