Teens and Social Media: No App Needed, Just Common Sense

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Carmen and her parents are at odds. She’s 13, and feels she will die without a smartphone. Her parents, fearing that the smartphone offers too many options for the teen, are saying “no.” Carmen wants what most of her friends already have, and her parents fear the worst. The two are at a standstill.

Carmen and her family mirror millions of teens and their parents across the world. When is the right time for a teen to have a smartphone and thus have access to social media? The answer requires that parents think differently about the technology and establish clear ground rules, say Cooperative Extension professionals.

“Technology is here to stay,” says Yuya Kiuchi, who is part of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Michigan State University and has done research on American culture and social media. “You cannot lock out this intruder.”

Kiuchi said parents and their teens have to consider what the smartphone, or the tablet or access to social media actually means for the teen and what value it can add to their lives.

For teens, the smartphone is a way to converge and connect. Research from the Pew Research Center notes that texting is the primary way teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face contact, email and voice calling. Female teens, 14-17 years old, average 100 text messages a day.

While acknowledging that smartphones have value for teens, parents also have to help them understand that the technology is a privilege and not a right, said Trudy Dunham, Research Fellow with the University of Minnesota Extension Center for Youth Development.

“It should be expected that the youth take care not to lose or break it, and to use its communication, information and learning features appropriately,” Dunham said.

The process to deciding whether or not to get the smartphone, Dunham said, is much like the one parents use when introducing the child to anything new, including riding a bike. Just as parents require that children use a helmet and a bike lock, they can also establish guidelines for smartphone use. They could include:

  • not use the phone while walking or driving,
  • not allow others to use it out of their sight,
  • not bully others or access inappropriate sites,
  • and keep the phone in a secure place.  

Most parents fear that texting could lead to sexting and to sharing too much information on social media sites. Instead of considering the negative consequences, parents have to find the root cause of the problem, Kiuchi said. Is it an issue of lack of respect or just taking unnecessary risks?

“Yes, the technology resources have a downside, but let’s deal with the cause of the problem,” Kiuchi said. “Let’s talk about respect and boundaries. Teens used to meet behind the school and experiment, now they share on the smartphone. The technology is not going away. We need to figure out how to use it responsibly.”

For Additional Information
Bullied on Facebook or by Text? Dealing with Cyberbullying, eXtension

Teens and Media Use: Cell Phones—What’s the Plan? University of Florida

Family Fundamentals: Use of cell phones can help, hurt parent/teen relationship, Ohio State University

Youth, Technology, and Society: Keys of Successful Integration to Improve our Lives, eXtension archived webinar

Teens, Smartphones & Texting; Pew Internet & American Life Project


Released October 1, 2013

Sources: Yuya Kiuchi, Ph.D., Michigan State University, kiuchiyu@msu.edu

Trudy Dunham, M. S., University of Minnesota, dunha003@umn.edu 

Writer: Robin Cheeley, writeright4you@gmail.com