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7 Fears About Teens and Technology, Unwrapped

December 20, 2016

This article is based on the latest episode of Sanford's Ways & Means podcast. Ways & Means explores bright ideas for how to improve human society. In the episode, Professor Candice Odgers breaks down what the research says about seven common fears parents have related to teens and mobile phones. Listen:


[Read podcast transcript]


It’s practically impossible to be an American teenager today without a phone.

Kids use their phones for everything—and it often stresses out parents who worry their teens are spending too much time with their devices.

Ninety percent of adolescents in the U.S. now either own or can access a mobile phone with the internet, and many parents worry about how much time their teens spend with their device.

Research shows that adolescents are looking at screens about eight hours a day. Cell phones are a major part of that; a quarter of teens say they are online almost constantly.

Candice Odgers, a professor at Duke University and the Associate Director of the Center for Child & Family Policy, studies adolescent development.

For one of her studies, “MiLife,” Odgers gave teens mobile phones and then contacted them throughout the day to ask them to report what they were doing, and how they were thinking or feeling.

Odgers said that in the course of her study, she heard from a lot of parents who shared their fears about their child’s use of technology. Many of them were common.

Among the seven most common fears that parents had about their children’s use of technology:

  1. Is my teen at risk for stranger danger and/or cyberbullying?

  2. Does time online affects real-world relationships?

  3. Are phones causing a digital divide with parents?

  4. Are teens posting too much personal information online?

  5. Is multitasking bad for you?

  6. How pervasive is sexting?

  7. Are phones affecting teens’ physical health?

Odgers decided to add an additional research focus to her study. In addition to using mobile technology as a tool to understand more about adolescent lives, she wanted to find out if these fears were well-founded.

She and her colleagues looked at media reports and reviewed as much scientific data as they could find.

Based on that review, Odgers and one of her graduate students published a paper detailing whether those seven fears fears were justified.

She began with “stranger danger:” the fear that an adolescent would meet a sexual predator online.

For the most part, she said, parents can lay that concern to rest.

“The idea of stranger danger online was something we initially saw when people started to go online in chat rooms,” she said. “Technology has really evolved to its part of our everyday lives. And when we start looking at who kids are interacting with, there are very few interactions that are really with strangers.”

Research shows more than 90 percent of parents worry about cyber-bullying, or people using technology as a tool to harass or shame others.

Odgers’ analysis found that technology has given bullying a new form, but by and large young people who are victimized online are the same ones at risk for bullying in the real world.

“The interventions that target bullying in general also tend to reduce cyber-bullying,” she said.“All the things we know about the risks for kids, what interventions might work for kids, a lot of those lessons translate.”

A third parent fear, in addition to cyberbullying and stranger danger — is time — specifically the amount of time adolescents are spending online. Does time spent online interfere with the ability to have meaningful in-person relationships?

Odgers says there’s little evidence that time spent online will lead to social isolation; for the most part research over the last decade has shown adolescents who are online a lot have higher quality friendships and an increased feeling of belonging.

Some evidence shows that spending time online can help shy teens build social skills.

Fourth: are mobile phones creating a digital divide with parents?

Odgers again found this not to be the case. While technology use may take away from face to face time kids spend with their parents, she said, it doesn’t necessarily weaken parent-child relationships. In some cases, it might even strengthen those relationships.

Another common parent fear: are teenagers putting too much personal information out there for the world to see?

Odgers said that this is an unanswered question: more research will be needed as the current generation ages to know whether the online archiving of young people’s experiences has a cost.

But she said the research does show that teens use technology to do really creative things. This generation may be more creative and innovative than their parents in part because of technology.

Odgers did find that a number of concerns parents have are indeed justified.

Take multitasking as an example.

Research on adults and college students shows that digital multitasking can lead to increased errors on tasks and poorer grades. More research is needed on adolescents in this area.

Sixth: how big of a concern is sexting?

Estimates vary, but a significant percentage of adolescents –participate in sharing naked photos and videos. As many as 30 percent of older teens do it, and some younger teens as well.

Odgers says parents should be on alert for such behavior.

Finally, 80 percent of adolescent mobile phone owners report that they take their phones to bed with them.

Odgers says that is cause for serious concern with regard to physical health.

With their phones in the bedroom, Odgers found, adolescents do not get a good night’s sleep.

“After I wrote this section in the review that I got all of the devices out of every bedroom in my house,” she said.

Using mobile devices before bed can affect circadian rhythm and diminish the quality of sleep.

Odgers said that while there are some justified concerns, there are many upsides to the growing use of technology.

“Adults have a tendency to view things that kids are doing as negative on their development,” she said. “We need to pause. We need to think about what the data might say about whether there are negative consequences. We need to look at the opportunities for embracing technology as a tool for minimizing the digital divide, following kids where they might lead us.”

Candice Odgers is a Professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and the Associate Director of the Center for Child & Family Policy at Duke.

The American Academy of Pediatrics publishes recommendations on children and media. They suggest families designate media-free times together, such as during dinner or while driving, as well as media-free locations at home, such as bedrooms.

Ways & Means is hosted by Emily Hanford, an education correspondent for American RadioWorks, the national documentary unit of American Public Media.