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Kids turning to cellphone for Internet; it's tough on parent oversight

The number of teens and tweens accessing the Internet via cellphone is growing, a new survey says, posing bigger problems for parents who like to keep tabs on their kid's Internet activities. 

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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.

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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.

Does their daughter protest about all the restrictions? Occasionally.

"But she wants a phone so badly that it doesn't matter right now," Budziak says. "Having a phone was better than having no phone at all."

Mark Tremayne, an assistant professor of communication at the University of Texas at Arlington, says he and his wife put off getting their son a smartphone longer than most— until his 13th birthday, which is quickly approaching. They plan to monitor it, having already discovered a few "surprises" when checking the Web surfing history on his iPod Touch.

On one hand, Tremayne says it's the sort of stuff he used to look up in books and magazines when he was 13.

"It's pretty clear that kids will do what kids will do," he says. But he acknowledges that having a mobile device can make it that much easier to access.

The key, he says, is to talk to his son about it, and that's what many other tech and communication experts also advise.

"I don't think the technology itself is bad. The benefits vastly outweigh the risks. But parents do need to be aware," says Daniel Castro, a senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a research and education think tank based in Washington, D.C.

"Part of it is simply asking, 'What are you doing, and why?'"

Too often, he and others say, adults don't fully understand how the smartphones work — or how their kids might use them differently than they do.

So guidance from parents, teachers and other adults can be lacking, says Danah Boyd, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research who specializes in teens and their tech-driven communication.

"For the last decade, too much of the online safety conversation has focused on surveillance. Surveillance will not help in a world of handhelds, but conversation will," says Boyd, who's also a research assistant professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University.

She points to research by Henry Jenkins, the director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has long encouraged parents, schools, and after-school programs to focus on how to navigate the online world — from developing judgment about credible online sources to using high-tech skills to help build community and pool collective knowledge.

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