Research Offers a Reality Check on Teen Device Use

Joan Goodchild/ Cyber Savvy Mom

When it comes to navigating parenthood, the first question we often ask ourselves is: Am I doing this right?

Parenting itself is challenging and overwhelming at times. But in the digital age, where we add in the new complexities of screen time, smartphones and internet behavior -- it can be downright terrifying.

We all want to know if we are guiding our kids appropriately when it comes to online access and device use. How can we teach kids to be smart, secure and civil online and on their phones? How are other parents handling these challenges?

A recent survey from Pew Research Center gives us some clarity on how others are tackling parenting today now that devices are in just about every older child’s life. Pew surveyed over 1,000 parents of teens. Here are some highlights to give you clarity on how your experience stacks up with other parents around the country.

Smartphones and social media are now part of life for most teens – and that has parents worried.

Did you toss and turn over the decision about when your kid was ready for a smartphone? Now that they have one, do you wonder if it was a mistake? You are not alone, as Pew calls smartphones an “almost universal feature of teenage life in the United States.”

The research found more than nine-in-ten U.S. teens ages 13 to 17 say they have access to a smartphone or use social media. And now that smartphones have taken over, 65 percent of parents worry their teens spend too much time in front of screens. Another 62 percent of parents said they worry their child is losing the ability to communicate in person.

Most parents feel online access poses some problems.

Social media sites are a common destination for most teens today, with Instagram and Snapchat being two of the most popular for this age group. But parents are concerned that their kids are not up to the responsibility that comes with sharing personal information on sites like these. Among respondents, 61 percent were worried their teens were sharing too much online. Other concerns included that they were being harassed or bullied (59 percent) and that they were sending or receiving explicit messages (57 percent).

Parents are struggling with device use too!

As much as we wring our hands about how much time our kids spend with their phones, we are not sending a great message about managing our own digital distraction. Pew said 59 percent of parents report they at least sometimes feel obligated to respond to cell phone messages immediately, and 39 percent admit they regularly lose focus at work because they’re checking their mobile device. Another 36 percent admit they spend too much time on their cell phone. It’s a classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do!”

Not like the good ol’ days?

Of course, many of us are tempted to draw comparisons between childhood now and the childhood we experienced when electronics were far less common. Pew found parents are divided on whether today’s teens are facing different kinds of issues than we did.

When asked to compare the experiences of today’s teens to their own experiences when they were a teen, 48 percent of parents say today’s teens have to deal with a completely different set of issues. But the other 51 percent felt despite some differences, the issues young people deal with today are not that different from when they themselves were teenagers.

So what are parents doing about device use today?

Parents are using a number of strategies to curb unhealthy levels of device use and to control risky online behavior. Nearly six-in-ten parents say they often or sometimes check which websites their teen visits or look through their child’s cell phone call logs or messages (58 percent of parents say they do each of these things). And 52 percent use parental controls to restrict which sites their teen can access.

Ever taken your kid’s phone away or cut off internet access after they do something wrong? Those of us who have been there know it often sends a meaningful message. The Pew research found 57 percent of parents say they often or sometimes take away their teen’s cell phone or internet privileges as punishment.

But this is my favorite finding: The survey found that regardless of behavior, 57 percent of parents limit the times of day or how often their teen can go online or use their cellphone.

Why do I like this? Because these parents are doing exactly what they need to do to help their kids navigate childhood in a digital age. While devices are likely here to stay, and just about every teen has one, we are still the parents - and our rules are the ones kids must follow. Limiting device use to a level you are comfortable with sends a message that you are invested in their physical and emotional health – and that you want to teach them about a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle.

Talk to your child about appropriate time limits with devices. Show them research (like this!) that supports the need for a balance between device time and time spent doing other things that don’t require electronics.

You can see the full Pew report here.

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