Smartphones and Preteens: What's the effect?


Recently, I have read more and more studies about technology, gaming and smart phones and how they affect young people.

As parents who did not grow up with this kind of technology, it is difficult to know how to navigate these choppy waters.

I decided to turn to a friend whom I know from my days at Johns Hopkins.  Laren Anderson, LCPC, has been a middle school counselor for eight years.  She is also the mother of three young children, and has watched the school climate and students change through the digital age. Thinkstock

How is the influence of smartphones playing out in the school setting?

For starters they’re in everyone’s pockets.

Two to three years ago, only several students had phones. Now almost every student has a phone in his or her pocket. Socio-economic status doesn’t matter. Every student from the lowest of the low income to the highest of the high has a phone in his or her pocket. 

What have been some of the surprising impacts of all of these phones?      

Ask a student their parent’s numbers. They don’t know them. They don’t know their friend’s contact information. They don’t know addresses. They can’t tell you birthdays. Students rely on their phones for everything. I have students that still look in their phones for their locker combinations. It is a good idea, sure. Is it changing how their brains retain information? I think it is. I had a student tell me the other day that Facebook reminded them that it was her parent’s birthday!

What about the effects of the Internet use on the smartphone?

Students have access to everything on their smart phones. I have had a surge in parents contacting me about their child’s exposure to adult websites, especially pornography. Kids can get around parent controls, and what might seem like a harmless Google search could actually traumatize your child. The child will rarely discuss these feelings because they are afraid they’ll get into trouble for being on a pornography site and they’re ashamed and feel embarrassed by what they saw.

We often read how social media can take over our home lives…how have you seen it affect these young teens? 

There is an increase in social media use that is not approved by the parent or monitored. Since the child is not at a computer that’s central in the home they can access MULTIPLE social networks with their phone while the parent is not aware of the usage. I’m not saying that social media is a negative thing, but everything in moderation! Not every kid on these sites is doing bad things or bullying people, but they are spending their time on a device. That takes away from the human contact they should be having. 

What are some troublesome issues you have noticed that do not seem to be on the radar of the students or the parents?

Parents should try to stay ahead of the trends…or at least jump on them when you can. Make sure you know who has access to your child, and do your homework so you can sit with your child and fill them in on the pros and cons of sites they use.

Make sure your child knows that what they’re posting can be captured in a screen shot…INCLUDING snap-chat. Indecent or pornographic photos are captured and sent around school buildings, via text, multiple times a year. The students sending those photos say the same thing “I didn’t know you could save it.” You can and people will. There’s no such thing as deleting what you’ve posted.

What are phrases that you find yourself saying over and over, as a counselor to these preteens?

 I find myself saying (to the student), “would you have sent/posted that to your parent?” This is the conversation parents need to have with their child. Say “If you wouldn’t send it to me, DON’T send it”, “if you wouldn’t watch it with me, DON’T search for it on the phone”.

I suggest limiting access to their phones. For example, children don’t need their phones in their rooms overnight.

What are your final recommendations for parents of preteens today, who are feeling very pressured to give their children smart phones?

Parents should understand the technology their children are using. Also, parents have to practice what they preach. Please don’t ask your child to be responsible online and then post videos or content that isn’t appropriate, especially when they have access to your online profiles.  This is too much of a mixed message for them to manage.

Have you seen any parents handle this smart phone transition well?

I’ve seen parents handle this extremely well. They gauged their child’s maturity, his or her need, and his or her ability to manage a responsibility.

They’ve laid out the expectations WITH a contract stating the clearly defined rules and consequences, and they have used the phone to add another layer to their relationship with their child. They text with them and get involved in social media with them.  They keep communication open with their child about the daily changes in technology and their access to it.


A mother of three young children and a parent coach, Meghan Leahy teaches parenting techniques to both individuals and groups in the Washington D.C. area, as well as all over the country. Meghan is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post parenting blog "On Parenting." To find out more, please visit Positively Parenting.








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