More youths access Internet via smartphones

The Associated PressMarch 19, 2013 

— Keep computers in a common area so you can monitor what your kids are doing. It’s a longstanding directive for online safety – but one that’s quickly becoming moot as more young people have mobile devices, often with Internet access.

A recent report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds that 78 percent of young people, ages 12 to 17, now have cellphones. Nearly half of those are smartphones, a share that’s increasing steadily – and that’s having a big effect on how, and where, many young people are accessing the Web.

The survey, released Wednesday, finds that one in four young people say they are “cell-mostly” Internet users, a percentage that increases to about half when the phone is a smartphone.

In comparison, just 15 percent of adults said they access the Internet mostly by cellphone.

“It’s just part of life now,” says Donald Conkey, a high school sophomore in Wilmette, Ill., just north of Chicago, who is among the many teens who have smartphones. “Everyone’s about the same now when it comes to their phones – they’re on them a lot.”

He and other teens say that if you add up all the time they spend using apps and searching for info, texting and downloading music and videos, they’re on their phones for at least a couple hours each day – and that time is only increasing, they say.

According to the survey, older teen girls, ages 14 to 17, were among the most likely to say their phones were the primary way they access the Web. And while young people in low-income households were still somewhat less likely to use the Internet, those who had phones were just as likely – and in some cases, more likely – to use their cellphones as the main way they access the Web.

Already, many smartphones have restriction menus that allow parents to block certain phone functions, or mature content. Cellphone providers have services that allow parents to see a log of their children’s texts. And there are a growing number of smartphone applications that at least claim to give parents some level of control on a phone’s Web browser, though many tech experts agree that these applications can be hit-or-miss.

Despite the ability to monitor some phone activity, some tech and communication experts question whether surveillance, alone, is the best response to the trend.

Some parents take a hard line on limits. Others, not so much, says Mary Madden, a senior researcher at Pew who co-authored the report.

“It seems like there are two extremes. The parents who are really locking down and monitoring everything – or the ones who are throwing up their hands and saying, ‘I’m so overwhelmed,’” Madden says.

She says past research also has found that many parents hesitate to confiscate phones as punishment because they want their kids to stay in contact with them.

“Adults are still trying to work out the appropriate rules for themselves, let alone their children,” Madden says. “It’s a difficult time to be a parent.”

Mark Tremayne, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Texas at Arlington, says he and his wife put off getting their son a smartphone longer than most– until his 13th birthday, which is quickly approaching. They plan to monitor it, having already discovered a few “surprises” when checking the Web surfing history on his iPod Touch.

On one hand, Tremayne says it’s the sort of stuff he used to look up in books and magazines when he was 13.

“It’s pretty clear that kids will do what kids will do,” he says. But he acknowledges that having a mobile device can make it that much easier to access.

The key, he says, is to talk to his son about it, and that’s what many other tech and communication experts also advise.

“I don’t think the technology itself is bad. The benefits vastly outweigh the risks. But parents do need to be aware,” says Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a research and education think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“Part of it is simply asking, ‘What are you doing, and why?’”

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