America’s phone-obsessed teens are always multitasking, and it’s starting to cost them

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Gen Z TECH 2x1 THUMB

  • Generation Z spends a lot of time looking at screens. In a Business Insider survey of more than 1,800 Americans between the ages of 13 and 21, more than half said that their favorite pastime includes using some form of technology, whether it’s watching Netflix or scrolling through social feeds.
  • All this screen time has enabled a culture of multitasking wherein young people are always doing at least two things at once.
  • Teens acknowledge that multitasking is often not very effective. Still, they worry about missing out.
  • Several teens who spoke with us expressed a longing for interpersonal connection that cannot be replicated through the internet.
  • At the same time, Gen Zers are finding that many opportunities have opened to them thanks to the internet and the accessibility of information.

Jess Gallo, 19, doesn’t want to be obsessed with her phone, but she can’t help herself.

"I wish we were less connected," the freshman at New Jersey’s Montclair State University said.

"If we’re going to watch a movie on the laptop, this one’s on their phone, this one’s eating, this one’s listening to music or watching a video," Gallo said. "There’s always so much going on. I get sensory overload. I’ve just got to step out of the room for a second. It’s too much."

This sentiment isn’t unique to members of her generation, the tribe of 13- to 21-year-olds known as Generation Z. Many of today’s youth are finding that technology has grown to dominate their free time.

We surveyed 1,884 people in the US between the ages of 13 and 21. The national poll was conducted January 11-14 with SurveyMonkey Audience partner Cint on behalf of Business Insider.

According to the survey, Gen Z’s favorite pastimes are dominated by screens. When asked what they do most often to blow off steam, about 26% said they watch TV or Netflix, 22.5% said they watch YouTube, 15.6% said they play video games, and nearly 9% said they go on social media. These responses handily beat out other options such as reading or doing something outdoors.

But teens know they have a tech addiction problem. And they want to break the habit.

There are more than 24 hours in a teenager’s day

While the mix of tech-based hobbies varies — some Gen Zers watch more Netflix, some play more "Fortnite" — use of online video, social media, and video games has been on the rise, according to trends in Piper Jaffray’s "Taking Stock of Teens" survey, which has been administered to 8,000 teens twice a year since 2001.

A Pew Research Center survey of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 found that about 45% said they use the internet "almost constantly." Some 44% said they go online several times a day.

But with only 24 hours in a day, how can teens be devoting more time to their screens and fit in work, school, and other responsibilities? The answer lies in an intense culture of multitasking wherein teens are almost never doing just one thing at a time.

"Teens, in this case, are using … a kind of multitasking of time allocation so that that overlap of various services almost results in there being more than 24 hours in a day on a usage basis," Mike Olson, a senior analyst at Piper Jaffray, told Business Insider.

That could mean streaming shows on a laptop while browsing Instagram or texting while having dinner. Some put Netflix on while they’re doing homework.

Nicole Jimenez, a 20-year-old sophomore at Rutgers University, said she multitasks all the time.

"A lot of people I know multitask," Jimenez said. "Especially in lectures — you can see the amount of people below you and what they’re doing on their laptop, and for the most part it’s not taking notes."

If you don’t have an iPhone, you get left behind

For teens, iPhones rule the roost. About 83% of teens surveyed by Piper Jaffray said they owned an iPhone. These teens came of age just as the iPhone effectively became a requirement instead of a luxury. The median age of Gen Z is 17, meaning they were 10 when the iPhone was just starting to become adopted by the masses.

"It’s ridiculous how strong it continues to be," Olson said.

In Business Insider’s survey, the iPhone’s dominance was less pronounced, but Apple devices still commanded a strong majority, with 46% of respondents saying they used an iOS phone or tablet to answer the questions. Some 36% used an Android-powered phone or tablet to take the survey, and 11% used a Windows desktop or laptop.

iPhone ownership is so culturally powerful that those who don’t have the devices are sometimes ostracized. "If you don’t have an iPhone it’s kind of frowned upon," Liane Lopez, an 18-year-old high-school senior in New Jersey, said.

If you don’t have an iPhone, you’re not getting added to group chats. That seems really mean, but it’s difficult to group-text people if they don’t have an iPhone.

People who don’t have an iPhone are sometimes seen as "people who want to be different," Mason O’Hanlon, a 19-year-old sophomore at Babson College, said. O’Hanlon estimated that 90% of the people he knows have iPhones.

iPhone are not cheap: The least expensive model that Apple sells is $450. And this may cause class stratification, as not having an iPhone can lead to social friction.

"If you don’t have an iPhone, you’re not getting added to group chats," Jimenez said. "That seems really mean, but it’s difficult to group-text people if they don’t have an iPhone."

Some experts blame the rise of smartphones for fueling the multitasking culture.

"The ability to participate in most of these activities, with an additional device beyond your TV or your PC, has had a huge impact on multitasking, and therefore consumption of more media or content," Olson said.

O’Hanlon agrees: "The sole reason people multitask is the accessibility of the iPhone."

Teens who spoke with Business Insider said they recognized that multitasking was not efficient. "It doesn’t really work out that well," Jimenez said. Experts say that trying to process two or more things at once may not even really be possible. "Multitasking is a myth," Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at the San Diego State University, told Business Insider.

Twenge is the author of "iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood — and What That Means for the Rest of Us," published in 2018. "We know from cognitive psychology that the human brain can’t actually consciously focus on more than one thing at a time," she said.

Teens fear they will miss out if they aren’t on their phones

So why do teens feel the pressure to do multiple things at once?

Teens "feel like they’re missing out on something" if they’re not, O’Hanlon said. Devices are where the community is and where the cultural conversation is happening.

"Even the kids who are using social media responsibly, or even choosing not to use it all, are impacted because then they’re still left out," Twenge said. "It’s almost an impossible choice."

Gen Zers said this phenomenon even extends to times when they are not alone, but hanging out with friends. These young people worry their peers are not really engaged in interpersonal communication, and it’s affecting their relationships.

"Something my generation struggles with is that being with people and being on the phone at the same time is a huge problem," Lopez said. "It’s a huge problem because they’re doing two things, but they’re not really engaged."

"People in our generation are the worst listeners," O’Hanlon said. "I have to repeat myself. Day to day, it can be pretty frustrating."

There’s an idea that online interaction leads to tighter interpersonal connections, as most contact among teens online happens between friends who know each other already — that all the chatting on "Fortnite" and in-group iMessage threads are fostering social connection.

But it hasn’t been borne out in psychological research. Instead, teens are trading in-person interaction for time on social media and other online venues.

"In-person, face-to-face interaction is one of the things that declined as digital-media use and electronic communication increased," Twenge said. "The shift away from face-to-face interaction and toward digital media led to less social connection, not more, at least in terms of feelings of loneliness and social isolation."

The internet has an upside

Twenge said the findings do not mean that social media is "all bad." Online platforms can be as helpful as they are harmful, and some savvy teens are finding ways to harness the internet’s power.

Amanda Steele, 19, has used social media to her advantage, building a community of 2.7 million YouTube subscribers and a place where she could be herself.

"This was a time for me where I didn’t really have friends or anyone to talk to about all things beauty and fashion," Steele told Business Insider. "Success for me was having an audience that just cared about the things I did. YouTube was just a home and escape for me. Somewhere I could truly be myself."

As much time as they spend on their screens, members of Gen Z want those outside of their generation to know they are more than that.

"There’s a strong perception that they’re just on their phone all the time, and that’s the way they like it, and that they’re not self-aware," Twenge said. "But they are. They are fully aware of the downsides of the technology-saturated world they are living in."

Teens feel disempowered to battle the glowing lure of screens as the relentless wave of technological innovation marches on.

For Gallo, this complicated relationship with technology hits close to home.

"It’s ironic because my dad’s a network engineer and works with computers and technology," Gallo said. "Sometimes I have problems with it. I feel like we have too much of a reliance on technology. And we don’t really appreciate the value of books or interpersonal communication."

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