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Teens and cellphones: Tips for parents

The issue of cellphones and teenagers can create hot debate among parents.

Cellphone-seeking teens may argue that “everyone has one.” Parents are likely to be torn between wondering if their teens are ready for the responsibility and not wanting them to stick out among their phone-toting peers.

Is your teen ready to have a cellphone? Recent articles and studies share some pros and cons, providing more insight on answering this phone question.

Pro: Teaches responsibility

On, Angela La Fon contends that cellphones teach responsibility. “Having a cellphone will not automatically instill responsibility, but it can offer the opportunity to learn responsibility,” La Fon writes.

Simple responsibilities such as keeping the cellphone charged, staying within minutes or text limits, and learning appropriate ways to use phones in public places such as school are among the opportunities to learn, according to La Fon's article.

On one of her weekly ABC Action News segments, Parenting in Action, Angela Ardolino says parents should establish boundaries and limitations for cellphone use as well as consequences and rewards when appropriate. She shares a number of ideas, such as setting specific times teens can use the phone and explaining cellphone etiquette.

“Regardless of what your teen says, you are the only person who can decide if they're ready to have a cellphone,” says Ardolino. “(If) you decide to bestow the privilege … talk (your teen) through what it means and what’s expected. … If you’re clear about what you expect in return, there won’t be any discussion later on down the line.”

Con: Can lead to irresponsibility

An article on Common Sense Media addresses the importance of teaching responsibility when it comes to cellphone use.

“Cellphones give kids access to a world that's both portable and private,” the article reads. “Unlike when they talk on the phone at home, with a cellphone you're not there to monitor what they're saying or sending, or whom they're talking to.”

The article goes on to describe how access to a cellphone's “powerful communication tools” can be used irresponsibly. Teens with cellphones can text at any given time and cause distractions in places where they should be paying attention to something else, such as in school. Teens can also participate in inappropriate activities such as sexting, defined as “sending or receiving inappropriate pictures or messages.” There's also the problem of cyberbullying, which involves sending or uploading embarrassing texts, photos or videos to websites or others' phones.

And let's not forget texting while driving. An infograph from Texting and Driving Safely shows scary-but-true statistics of texting teens. Five seconds is the minimal amount of time a driver's attention is taken away from the road when texting and driving. If traveling at 55 mph, that time “equals driving the length of a football field without looking at the road.”

Pro: Safety net

One advantage to teens having cellphones is that it allows parents to stay in touch and make sure their teens are safe.

Michelle Maffei from SheKnows: Parenting points out that Sprint offers a tool called “Sprint Family Locator” that allows parents to keep track of where their teens are at all times. AT&T offers a similar service called “FamilyMap.” Such services do cost extra, however.

Con: Misuse can lead to addiction

Just how addicted are teens to their beloved cellphones? According to Mashable, a study by TextPlus, a free messaging app for smartphones, found that half of the 600 teens surveyed 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.”

Teens who are addicted to their phones go through similar withdrawals as those addicted to drugs or alcohol, according to research related in an article on Total Health Magazine.

“Cellphones, like drugs or alcohol, may act on the reward centers of the brain which contain opiate receptors,” the researchers said. “When the brain gets its perceived reward — whether it's heroin, chocolate or the fun of texting 2,000 times a month on average — it wants a do-over, again and again and again. Suddenly, a behavior is born.”

Pro: A learning tool

Responsible parents who use their cellphones wisely may already know ways their teens can use cellphones as learning tools. The apps available for smartphones seem to be endless, but some apps can come in handy and help teens in many ways.

An article on called “12 Most Useful Ways Kids Can Learn With Cellphones” explains how teens can use apps for help with homework or other school-related projects.

One app, Voki, allows a teen to record his voice, after which the avatar he chooses repeats his speech using the teen's own voice. It's a tool that can help in preparing for public speaking at school, for instance.

With another app, TextNovel, teens can write fiction or nonfiction stories and share what they have written with others. They can receive feedback and encouragement for improving their writing skills.

Con: Decreases communication skills

A long-running debate focuses on whether communicating through texting is affecting teens' communication skills. In a study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 63 percent of teens surveyed said they use texting to communicate with others every day, compared with 35 percent of teens who said they socialize with others in person outside of school on a daily basis.

In an article from the Huffington Post, experts say the best communicators will have the ability to talk and text in the appropriate settings. These experts also worry teens are losing the ability to have “face-to-face conversations that are vital in the workplace and personal relationships.”

There is nothing wrong with casual conversations and having fun through texting, according to communication experts. The problem is that the conversations aren't too deep, and deep conversations help build important communication skills.

Joseph Grenny, co-author of the book “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High,” says in the Huffington Post article that this problem has existed ever since phones have existed.

“We loathe having crucial conversations. We are paralyzed and do what we can to avoid them,” Grenny says. The article goes on to say texting allows teens to avoid uncomfortable situations.

Another problem many parents fear is that texting is affecting their teens' writing skills. Joanna Schiferl, mother of 13-year-old Anna, says her daughter “tends to rush her writing and pays less attention to grammar, or uses abbreviations she'd use in a text,” according to the Huffington Post story.

Experts quoted in the article say the key to avoiding these problems is to “recognize your weak point and work on developing a wide range of communication skills.”

“People with a more flexible style, whether they're communicators in person or through technology, will have an easier time adapting,” says Renee Houston, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Puget Sound in Washington, in the article.

Kylie Lewis is an intern for the Deseret News where she writes for Mormon Times and does other feature articles. She recently graduated from Brigham Young University-Idaho, receiving a bachelor’s degree in communications.

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