A student in WHYY's Pathways to Media Careers program demonstrates social media usage for the teen reporters. (Vinella Jill Vinca, Nicholas Pompey, Essie Haverkamp for Billy Penn)

Teenagers today spend a lot of time on their phones using social media apps. But while it might frustrate parents or teachers, many in Philadelphia seem to be aware of how this might affect them. 

Across the nation, over 90% of teens say they use platforms like Instagram, YouTube, Discord, and Twitter, according to a Pew study last year, with about two-thirds saying they use them daily. 

It can be a great way to stay connected with family and peers, Philly teens say.

“I mostly use it to keep track of my friends,” Adam Marcello, 17, told Billy Penn. He was echoed by Jayson Harris, 16, who said, “It’s really just a place for me to connect with friends.”

About a third of American teens think they spend too much time on social media, per the 2022 Pew study. Some say maintaining a constant online presence can be exhausting or stressful, and a Johns Hopkins study from 2019 found that teens who use social media over three times a day are at a higher risk of developing mental health disorders.

“I go through stages of obsession when it comes to social media,” said Philadelphian Gabby Rodriguez, 19, “I do experience some type of fatigue when it comes to posting or when it comes to constantly liking someone or responding.”

A group of New York City teenagers formed the Luddite Club for young folks who want to ditch social media entirely. They focus on gradually cutting down the time they spend on the platforms, according to Chalkbeat New York, until it’s easier to stop. They use flip phones and meet in parks to spend time talking and pursuing extracurriculars such as sewing, reading, and painting. 

Rodriguez understands where they idea came from. “Whenever I take a break away from [social media],” they said, “it kind of gives me a relaxation and I’m kind of able to ground myself a bit more.”

On the other hand, they also recognize ways social media can be leveraged to their advantage: “I use it a lot for my art,” Rodriguez said. “I use it a lot for communication, and connecting with organizations.”

The way social media affects you is dependent on your approach and usage, said 17-year-old Jonathan Nieves.

“It’s definitely a diverse mix, some people have it purely just to communicate and other people just sit there scrolling through the app mindlessly for hours,” Nieves said. 

Teens who frequently use social media are constantly exposed to idealized pictures of others’ lives, which can lead to low self-esteem and exacerbate an outsized focus on seeking interpersonal feedback, per a 2015 study out of the University of North Carolina. There’s also a recent narrative that social media use can fuel gun violence, because small slights can erupt into public view and increase pressure for retaliation.

Several Philly teens have adopted various strategies to limit their usage, including mindful engagement and regular breaks — or even quitting specific apps..

“I’m going to delete the app and focus on myself,” Nieves said after discussing it with Billy Penn, “because deleting Discord … gives you more time for yourself.” 

For others, it’s all about using it in a way that’s not harmful. “I would never take a break unless I have an unhealthy [habit].” said Harris. “Losing that connection with friends would be sad.”

While there are diverse perspectives on the issue, many teenagers in Philadelphia believe it can be a positive thing — when used in moderation.

“You have to have a healthy balance for social media,” Marcello said. “There’s good sides and downsides, as long as you regulate it properly, it should be no problem.”

Essie Haverkamp, Nicholas Pompey, and Vinella Jill Vinca were Billy Penn's summer interns as part of the WHYY Education Youth Employment Program. They are all teens living in Philadelphia who are interested...