Pew mobile Internet study: Parenting changes with childhood mobile saturation

Pew mobile Internet study says 25 percent of teens  access the Internet through mobile devices and that the mobile platform is closing the digital gap between lower- and middle-income families. Parents need to begin watching their kids' backs, not look over their shoulders.

Steve Helber / Associated Press
New data shows the mobile platform seems to be closing the digital divide in the US. Here, Afrika Lewis, left, and Ausja Mason, center, of Birmingham, Ala., watch the Presidential Inauguration on a smart phone on Jan. 21in Washington.

After looking through the new "Teens & Technology 2013" study issued by the Pew Internet & American Life Project in collaboration with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, I'm as convinced as ever that regardless of income or education level, tech parenting is changing.

“The nature of teens’ Internet use has transformed dramatically – from stationary connections tied to shared desktops in the home to always-on connections that move with them throughout the day,” the study’s lead author, Mary Madden, writes in the report. And I'll summarize those interesting findings below. But some parenting context is important to consider first.

It’s difficult to control either the use or the users of an Internet that goes wherever the users go. But was control ever easy either? What replaces control? You might call it a guidance system, both internal and external. Psychologists and game designers talk about intrinsic/extrinsic rewards in learning and gaming. I think what we’re collectively learning now, urged on by the media shift, is that the most effective parenting starts with mostly external guidance (though I think children arrive with all the parts of an internal guidance system already in place; it just “learns” with use) and becomes increasingly internal and increasingly effective.*

My friend, author and teen and parent adviser Annie Fox, calls it our children’s moral compass. The child, their parents, many other people, and life experience activate, calibrate, and improve that moral compass. Those who care the most are there with the child the most when the guidance system hits an unknown. That’s why we need to keep the communication channels as wide open as possible so they’ll seek the external guidance they need to do the calibrating. So, as Henry Jenkins, a professor and friend, says about parenting our very mobile, connected kids, we need to “watch their backs, not look over their shoulders.”

Mobile saturation of childhood

Of the 12- to 17-year-olds living in the United States, 95 percent use the Internet, 93 percent have access to a computer at home, and 71 percent of teens with a computer at home share it with other family members – the biggest explanation, probably, for why teens’ Net use has gotten so mobile. It allows them to keep their connectivity personal.

  • Devices used: 78 percent of teens now have a cellphone, and 47 percent of those devices are smart phones – which means that more than a third of all US teens (37 percent) have smart phones, up from 23 percent two years ago. Almost a quarter (23 percent) of teens have a tablet computer.
  • Mobile access: 74 percent of teens access the Net on cellphones, tablets, and other mobile devices at least occasionally.
  • Mostly mobile access: A quarter (25 percent) of teens are “cell-mostly”, meaning they mostly go online using their phone and not using some other device such as a desktop or laptop computer. Of adults, 15 percent identified as cell-mostly and “among teen smart phone owners, half are cell-mostly.”
  • Older girls are even more mobile: More than a third (34 percent) of girls ages 14 to 17 go online mostly by cellphone, compared to a quarter (24 percent) of boys ages 14 to 17 (they use Xbox Live more, I figure, but this is purely anecdotal!). Pew says the gender discrepancy is “notable since boys and girls are equally likely to be smart phone owners,” bearing out, I think, the theory that cellphone use is very individual. “Among older teen girls who are smart phone owners, 55 percent say they use the Internet mostly from their phone.”
  • Mobile digital divide narrower

    Pew found that teens in “lower-income and lower-education households are still less likely to use the Internet” – mobile or wired – but they are “just as likely and in some cases more likely than those living in higher income and more highly educated households” to be cell-mostly with their Internet access.

    So we might extrapolate that the mobile platform is narrowing the digital divide in the US the way it is between developed and developing countries.

    Here are some digital-divide data points:

    • 89 percent of teens living in households earning under $30,000 per year use the Internet, compared to ... 
    • 99 percent of teens in households earning $75,000+ per year.
    • 30 percent of teens in households earning under $30,000 per year are cell-mostly Net users, compared with ... 
    • 14 percent of teens in households earning $50,000-74,999 per year and ... 
    • 24 percent living in households earning $75,000+ per year (the last three points probably indicate the most free-flowing access on any and all devices).

    *We probably need more research on what the right conditions are for children to develop their internal guidance system in the digital age, but we have plenty on child development, at-risk youth, and parenting – and a diversity of perspectives on moral development. But I suspect that most children have reasonably useful external conditions and largely unacknowledged inner resources for healthy, meaningful participation in community online and offline.

    The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family andparenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employedor directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at

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