Increased Use of Smartphones Among Teens: What’s A Parent to Do?

kidsphonesA new national study shows that the use of smartphones among teens has increased during the past year. The news is hardly shocking to parents and educators – but it does give us an opportunity to reflect on the role of technology in our kids’ lives – and also in our own.

The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, indicates that one in four teenagers use their cellphones to access the Internet, compared to 15 percent of adults. Seventy-eight percent of 12 to 17 year olds have a cell phone, and 37 percent have a smartphone, an increase from 23 percent in 2011, according to the study, Teens and Technology, 2013.

We are well aware of the escalating challenges and benefits of cellphone ownership and use. The benefit of cellphones is that it creates a safety net for teens and gives parents the ability to stay connected with their kids at all times. There are even tracking devices, such as Sprint Family Locator and AT&T’s FamilyMap.

But the challenges are many. Previous generations of teenagers used the landline to connect with their peers. Teens may have tied up the family phone for hours, but parents were well aware of their activities. In fact, parents were usually able to vet potential dates and friends simply by answering the phone or observing their kids’ phone activity. Those days are long gone. The privacy and portability afforded kids by cellphones makes it increasingly difficult for parents to monitor their teens’ behavior. Texting, sexting, taking and sending inappropriate pictures, and cyberbullying are all serious concerns, as is the potential of smartphone addiction.

The incident this week in northern New Jersey is an example of how comfortable a group of teenage girls became with their cellphone camera, taking nude photos of themselves and sharing it through a device that erases the pictures a few seconds later. But some boys to whom the pictures were sent took screen shots of the photos before they were deleted and then shared them with others.

The superintendent of the Ridgewood school district sent a letter to parents informing them that police are now investigating the matter and urging them to have their children delete the photos. He said it is a crime to create, transmit or possess child pornography. Police say they will charge any student caught with the pictures after 7 a.m. Monday.

How many adults sleep with their smartphones next to their beds? Do you really want your teen to model your behavior? Hanging out with friends at the mall is one thing, but virtually hanging out 24/7 with a cellphone not only interferes with sleep, but intensifies the peer pressure that is part and parcel of adolescence.

According to Mashable, another study by TextPlus found that half of the teens they polled said they “couldn’t live without their mobile devices for a week, while 36 percent said they weren’t able to go 10 minutes without checking their phones.”

On the other hand, smartphones can be powerful learning tools, instantly connecting users to information and visuals. But kids also need to know that everything on the Internet is not necessarily true – such as the Tweets someone sent this week claiming to be Pope Francis. Young people need also to develop critical thinking skills. And there are concerns that texting may hamper the development of communication skills, such as writing and speaking.

Our parents and grandparents decried the use of the car, telephone, television, and portable radios by teens. In every generation, parents have had to cope with emerging technology. There is no shortage of lists to tell parents how to police their kids’ activities online, how to talk to them about cellphone use, and how to set rules and insist on responsible behavior.

But beyond that, we all should take a step back and see whether we are controlling the technology we use or whether technology is controlling us. That is the ageless question.

Parenting solutions are timeless too. There is nothing more powerful for parents to do than being present for kids, creating quality family time, sharing real life experiences, communicating face-to-face, inculcating values, and modeling appropriate behavior.