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This page is chapter 2 in a five-chapter series of app categories included in our report Living and learning in a digital world on children’s digital habits during the year 2021.

RESEARCH BY APP CATEGORY

What we found for social media apps

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Digital learning social media

What we found for social media apps

If TikTok rose in popularity across 2019 and 2020, through dance routines that kept us entertained during lockdown, and endless duets of sea shanties, then 2021 was the year it soared. Climbing to 1 billion monthly users worldwide by September, it secured itself as the third most popular social media platform worldwide, beaten only by the new “metaverse” of Facebook and Instagram. For children, however, TikTok was champion: it topped the global charts in our research in terms of both popularity and time spent on the app, with TikTok alone experiencing a 139% increase in screen time from 2019

Of all the app categories we examined, social media experienced the second highest growth, with time spent on social media apps increasing by 11% in 2021. Due to the notification-fuelled nature of social media, it also proved to be one of the most difficult categories for children to switch off from. Across the day, over 50% of the time they devoted to social media was spent during school hours.

THE MOST POPULAR SOCIAL MEDIA APPS IN 2021

TikTok reigned supreme as children’s most popular social media platform in all the countries we explored in our report: 41% of kids used the app globally, while country-by-country, Spanish children were the biggest fans of TikTok, at 57%, followed by the UK at 48%, and finally the US, at 40%

Last year’s global second place, Facebook, held its position for another year in 2021, with just a slight dip in popularity, from 39% to 37%. Snapchat, on the other hand, rose in popularity across 2021, claiming the bronze medal with 33% of kids using the platform. Largely, the social media giants of the Metaverse – Instagram and Facebook – along with TikTok, Snapchat, and Pinterest, dominated the top 5 in every country, with only subtle changes in popularity.  

People can say offensive things about you and you wouldn't even know about it. Also people can lie about their age and trick you to do things.
Sometimes kids can get too addicted to technology and it takes away from our personal and social life. There are also people that look to be toxic online and ruin your experience.
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HOW MUCH TIME DID CHILDREN SPEND ON SOCIAL MEDIA IN 2021?

Just as TikTok was the most popular social media app for kids around the world, it was also where they devoted the most time, spending 21% more time on the app (91 mins/day) than they did in 2020. Despite TikTok’s popularity in Spain, where 57% of kids used the platform, Spanish children spent the least amount of time connected, at 80 mins/day, compared to 102 mins/day in the UK and 99 mins/day in the US. Kids in the UK devoted the most time to TikTok, increasing their scroll time by a full 32 mins/day, up 46% from 2020. 

Of all the social media platforms, Snapchat experienced the biggest growth, with children spending an extra 32 mins/day on the app, up 82% from 2020. Once again, children in the UK stood at the forefront, spending 110% more time on Snapchat, from 39 mins/day in 2020 to 82 mins/day in 2021. While Instagram and Facebook showed little change in terms of popularity, children spent slightly less time scrolling their Instagram feed in 2021 (41 mins/day compared to 44 in 2020), and nearly halved their time on Facebook, spending 42% less time overall on the platform. 

Despite not making the popularity rankings, kids spent the second-longest amount of time on fandom app Amino, connecting for 68 mins/day. Children also spent a significant amount of time on other community-based networks, including 28 mins/day on child-friendly app PopJam, and 15 mins/day on social news platform Reddit.  

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While other categories displayed higher peaks and lower points, social media use largely held firm across the year. Smaller ebbs and flows, which largely corresponded to more time connected over school vacation, could be seen in July and December. 

Social media was also the category where children chose to spend most of their time connected, averaging out their daily use at 50 mins/day globally. Children in the UK were the heaviest daily users of social media platforms, spending 55 mins/day checking in on their feeds.

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THE MOST BLOCKED SOCIAL MEDIA APPS IN 2021

The social media apps that parents blocked the most in 2021 remained the same both on a global level, and in each country we analyzed, with the most popular apps for kids making the top of the block list too. The only new entry to this year’s most-blocked social media was in Spain, where attention shifted from now-defunct video chat app Houseparty to Pinterest. Reflecting both its popularity and the time kids spent on TikTok, it remained the most-blocked app for families everywhere.

THE MOST BLOCKED SOCIAL MEDIA APPS IN 2021

The social media apps that parents blocked the most in 2021 remained the same both on a global level, and in each country we analyzed, with the most popular apps for kids making the top of the block list too. The only new entry to this year’s most-blocked social media was in Spain, where attention shifted from now-defunct video chat app Houseparty to Pinterest. Reflecting both its popularity and the time kids spent on TikTok, it remained the most-blocked app for families everywhere.

social media apps

What we expect for social media apps

While development of Instagram Kids, Instagram’s supposed “child-friendly” version of the social media app, was paused in 2021 amid parent outcries, social media has now become such a large part of normality that we believe it will not be long before the social media giants follow in their footsteps. Following the success of YouTube Kids and Messenger Kids, we expect key players such as Instagram and TikTok to work on releasing versions of their app designed with kids in mind.

Despite most children returning to school across 2021, we expect time on social media to increase in 2022 overall, as the online-streaming-meets-social hybrid grows in popularity. With social networks beginning to promote video content more heavily, as seen with Instagram’s preference for content creators to upload reels, and Snapchat’s Snap Originals, which lets Snapchat users watch free, made-for-mobile video episodes, time spent on social media apps will naturally begin to rise, while engagement numbers hold firm.

What we recommend for social media apps

While it’s now becoming more and more difficult to keep children away from the temptations of social media, especially as more and more of their peers gain access to their very own profiles, we’d recommend only allowing kids to create a social media account when they demonstrate the appropriate level of emotional maturity. Social media can be difficult even for adults to navigate: the constant pressure to be “perfect”, distinguishing real life from “fake” social media lives, mean comments and cyberbullying, and the void of the bottomless scroll.

Many parents now resort to banning children completely from social media, but most tech-savvy kids will still find a way to use the apps. Instead of sending children unequipped to face the risks social media poses, it’s much more valuable for them as a life skill to understand how social networks work and how to navigate their more problematic aspects. It’s also important to remember that social media, when used correctly, can be a tool for creativity and provide opportunities for social interaction.

It’s important to acknowledge that children will look to adults as models of how to properly engage with social media. One of the negative aspects of social media, as addressed by the children we interviewed, is the “ideal” version of life it puts forward and the negative self-image it often causes, something which can be difficult for teenagers to fully process. Parents can help to place less importance on the appearance-focused aspect of social media by not drawing attention to other people’s looks (both on and off screen), avoiding self-deprecating observations on their own photos, and keeping comments about other people’s lives as positive as possible.

Before allowing children to use social media, parents should become more familiar with the platforms themselves, and be heavily involved in the setup process of the initial profile to ensure the correct privacy settings are applied (private profile, friend and family requests only, location settings off). They can also help their child find and follow individuals and content that ties in with their family’s values. To help establish healthier digital relationships, parents can also set time limits on social media apps, limiting scroll time on apps with bottomless content such as TikTok and Instagram.

Families should demonstrate ideal behavior, both on and offline. Teaching children how to become good digital citizens is key in helping them navigate the social aspect of the internet. Families can encourage their children to be kind in the comments they make online, respect other people’s digital property, and help them understand that there are real people behind the profiles on social media. Just as the real world poses dangers that parents prepare their children for, the same applies for the digital environment: families need to open up the conversation surrounding the many real risks that social media exposes them to.

Something I hate is the fake life that people try to portray on social media, I hate feeling like I'm less or inferior to them.
- Girl, 11, US
What I don’t like is bullying and other people being mean to other people and people pretending to live perfect lives. It really upsets me with my anxiety.
- Girl, 10, UK