The study, which consisted of in-person focus groups as well as a survey of 1,622 11th and 12th graders from across the country, found the most popular apps teens reported using behind the wheel include photo- and video-sharing sites Snapchat (38 percent) and Instagram (20 percent), followed by Twitter (17 percent), Facebook (12 percent) and YouTube (12 percent).
Researchers also gathered some interesting data about texting. Almost half of the teens said they text more when alone in the car than when they have passengers. And, perhaps surprisingly, they're not texting friends but sending messages to update their parents.
According to the study, teens believe parents, more than anyone else, expect immediate replies to their text messages. More than half of those surveyed reported that they feel compelled to answer texts from parents even when driving, and 19 percent believe their parents expect a reply within one minute and 25 percent within five minutes.
Of course, messages from parents aren't the only electronic distraction teens experience on the road.
Fully 88 percent of survey respondents said they use the phone while driving, 37 percent reported texting to coordinate event details and 34 percent admitted to taking their eyes off the road when they receive app notifications.
"Today's hyper-connected teens' ‘fear of missing out' can put young drivers at risk on the road as they may be more plugged into their devices than the actual driving task," said Dr. William Horrey, principal research scientist at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety, in a statement. "Teens may be at higher risk because they don't always have the attentional capacity to deal with all the complexities on the road.
"These distractions in addition to fatigue may be even more significant with teens due to their relative driving inexperience as well. It's so important for parents and teens to recognize and talk about these dangerous distractions to ensure better safety behind the wheel."
The study calls it the "always on" lifestyle of modern teens, which led 43 percent of those surveyed to cite schoolwork and extracurricular activities as factors that have caused them to fall asleep or almost fall asleep while driving.
Other factors include staying up late for homework (mentioned by 32 percent of the teens), social activities (24 percent), work (20 percent) and drinking or partying (10 percent).
According to NHTSA (the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration), distracted driving contributed to almost 3,000 fatal vehicle crashes in 2013 (the most recent year for which data is available). And nearly 300 of those fatal crashes involved teen drivers.
Distraction.gov, an NHTSA web site, has a number of suggestions for teens and parents to help reduce these statistics, including taking a pledge to be a distraction-free driver, speaking up as a passenger when other drivers become distracted and getting involved in community activities to help publicize the dangers of distracted driving.
Most important, say NHTSA and the organizations behind the study, is communication between parents and teens.
"Today's parents are juggling their own busy schedules, and too often young drivers' risky habits go unrecognized," said Stephen Gray Wallace, senior advisor for policy, research and education at SADD. "It's critical that parents focus on pinpointing these dangerous driving habits early on — from drowsy driving to technology use behind the wheel — and have frequent conversations with their children about what safe driving really means."
Edmunds says: Social media apps may get their fair share of the blame, but it turns out teens are often distracted by their own parents texting them while on the road. Leave me alone, dad.