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Kids and teens are inundated with phone prompts day and night

A Common Sense Media report finds about half of 11- to 17-year-olds get at least 237 notifications a day. Some get nearly 5,000 in 24 hours. What does that do to their brains?
Photo Illustration: Disembodied hands holding glowing smart phones
Kids and teenagers are online — usually engaged with social media — during the school day and at night, when they should be asleep.Justine Goode; NBC News / Getty Images

Fourteen-year-old Armita Mojazza is a huge Harry Styles fan, and TikTok knows it.

Videos of Styles are "pretty much always" showing up as Armita scrolls through the platform, she said — "the feed obviously adjusts to your interests."

Those videos, combined with notifications from Snapchat and other social media outlets, lure Armita, of White Plains, New York, into up to five hours of screen time on weekdays and at least eight hours on weekends, she said.

Her mother, Shahrzad Mojazza, said she was shocked to learn how much time her daughter spends online. "I feel like I'm waking up to this news," she said.

A new report about kids and their smartphone use may offer other parents a warning: Children like Armita are inundated with hundreds of pings and prompts on their phones all day and all night — even when they should be paying attention in class or getting a good night's rest.

It's a "constant buzzing," said Jim Steyer, the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a group that studies the impact of media and technology on kids and families. "They literally wake up and before they go to the bathroom, they're on their phone."

New research Common Sense Media released Tuesday finds about half of 11- to 17-year-olds get at least 237 notifications on their phones every day. About 25% of them pop up during the school day, and 5% show up at night.

In some cases, they get nearly 5,000 notifications in 24 hours. The pop-ups are almost always linked to alerts from friends on social media.

Armita Mojazza, seen here with her mother, Shahrzad, in Paris this past summer, says she spends hours every day on her phone.
Armita Mojazza, seen here with her mother, Shahrzad, in Paris this past summer, says she spends hours every day on her phone.Courtesy of Mojazza Family

"They're constantly forced to respond socially on Snapchat or TikTok or whatever to their friends," Steyer said. "It's a dominant factor in all of their personal lives."

Dr. Benjamin Maxwell, the interim director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego, said he is "immensely concerned" by the findings.

Such a "highly stimulating environment" may affect kids' "cognitive ability, attention span and memory during a time when their brains are still developing,” Maxwell said. “What are the long-term consequences? I don't think we know." Maxwell was not involved with the Common Sense report.

The study is based on surveys of 203 young people ages 11 through 17. The subjects also agreed to install an app on their phones for nine days so researchers could track their smartphone use. The app provided time-stamped data about which apps were running and when, as well as the numbers of notifications that popped up.

The social media apps tracked in the survey included TikTok, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram and Discord.

Fifty-nine percent of kids were online from midnight to 5 a.m. While some were engaging with social media, many were listening to music or white noise to wind down and get to sleep.

The vast majority — 97% — were on their phones during typical school hours. While prompts from smartphones could distract kids from paying attention in class, the report's authors did not suggest that schools should crack down on smartphone use or ban it altogether.

"This raises some questions about how schools can work with young people to help them have some control over their phone use," said the report’s lead researcher, Dr. Jenny Radesky, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

Many kids said they used their phones to communicate with parents during the school day. Others reported that time on their phones provided them with a way to "disengage when their brain needed a rest," Radesky said. "School feels hard and stressful for a lot of kids. The phone is one way that they give their brain a break."

But the Common Sense study also found that many try to control their online activity by using the "do not disturb" settings on their smartphones.

"We definitely heard that as teens got older, they developed more of that sense of planning for when and how they wanted to use their phone," Radesky said. They realize that there are times when "they don't want to feel bombarded with notifications or like their attention to be split."

Still, the attraction to those notifications is irresistible to many teens, like Armita Mojazza. She sets limits on her screen time but admitted she reaches that limit "all the freaking time."

Steyer blames the business model of social media platforms like TikTok. Their goal "is to keep you on the platform so they can sell you ads," he said. "It's really an arms race for your attention."

NBC News asked the four companies that own the most popular social media outlets highlighted in it about the new report.

  • TikTok said it sets a 60-minute daily screen time limit on teen accounts and disables push notifications at night. It also pointed parents to "TikTok's Family Pairing tools to further customize screen time, notifications, and other settings for their teens' account."
  • Snapchat said users have to opt in for notifications and can adjust the number they receive.
  • A statement from Discord highlighted its Family Center, a tool that gives parents "greater visibility into the interactions and activities of their teens."
  • A spokesperson for Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, said in an email that the company has "created a number of tools specifically designed to help teens limit their time and minimize notifications, like Quiet Mode and Take a Break on Instagram, as well as supervision features that let parents set scheduled breaks when their teens can't use the app."

How parents can ask about social media

The experts at Common Sense suggest specific questions parents can ask their kids to learn more about their smartphone use: What is your favorite app right now? Who are your favorite people to follow on social media? Can you teach me how to use Snapchat (or another social media platform)?

Steyer, a father of four, urges parents to remain nonjudgmental during such conversations and to be open about how much of their own time and attention they spend online and with social media apps.

He also recommends reserving threats to take a child's phone away as punishment to extreme circumstances only.

"Even though as a parent I have done that many times," Steyer said, children may not be as open about what they do online if they are constantly afraid of losing their phones.

"Kids have this extraordinary experience of childhood and adolescence that we did not have, but we can really help them through this," he said. "At the end of the day, it's good, old-fashioned, commonsense parenting that makes the difference."

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