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Report: More youth use smartphones as route to Web

Thursday - 3/14/2013, 3:40pm  ET

MARTHA IRVINE
AP National Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- 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 new 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.

"The occasional day where my phone isn't charged or I leave it behind, it feels almost as though I'm naked in public," says Michael Weller, a senior at New Trier High School, where Conkey also attends. "I really need to have that connection and that attachment to my phone all the time."

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.

It means that, as this young generation of "mobile surfers" grows and comes of age, the way corporations do business and marketers advertise will only continue to evolve, as will the way mobile devices are monitored.

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."

And a seemingly difficult time for them to say "no" to a phone, even for kids in elementary school, where the high-tech bling has become a status symbol.

Sherry Budziak, a mom in Vernon Hills, Ill., says her 6-year-old daughter has friends her age who are texting by using applications on the iPod Touch, a media player that has no phone but that has Internet access.

She draws the line there. But she did get her 11-year-old daughter an older model iPhone last fall, so she can stay in touch with her. Budziak, who works in the tech field and understands the ins and outs of the phone, set it so that the sixth-grader can text, make and receive phone calls and play games that her parents download for her.

"So we're on the conservative side, by far," she says.

Budziak also tells her daughter and her daughter's friends that it's Mom's phone, not her daughter's. It means that she and her husband monitor texts on the phone any time they like.

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