Why We Shouldn't Worry About Teenagers Using Mobile Phones

Like most 12-year-olds, my daughter got her first mobile phone a few months ago – just as she started secondary school. Year 7 is the time when life really opens up for young people: suddenly they're travelling solo to school and going out on their own, meeting up with friends to go shopping or to the park or to the cinema. It made sense to me as a parent, as it does to most parents with children of this age group, to buy her a phone.

Do I worry about her relationship with her phone, not just now but on into the adolescent years that are almost upon her? Yes, I do – and so do many other parents. So I welcome today's news that Imperial College is launching a study into the use of mobiles, focusing on 2,500 year 7 students who will be assessed now and again in two years' time. The study isn't looking at health risks around the use of mobile phones – of brain tumours and so on – though these will continue to be monitored in the years and decades ahead. Rather, it's looking at cognitive issues connected with the use of mobiles: such as how the use of phones might affect children's memory or attention span.

I look forward enormously to what the study reveals, but I wonder whether there might be a few shocks in store for people who think mobile phone technology spells doom for today's youngsters, eating up their brain cells with mindless chit-chat and pointless online games. It seems to me that the opposite might be the case: my older daughter, who is 15 and uber-connected (even for a 15-year-old), seems to me to have honed her quick-wittedness hand in glove with her mobile phone. Multitasking? Fast thinking? Problem solving? Information gathering? My daughter uses her smartphone for all this and more; and I think you'd agree that all the above are useful, life-enhancing attributes for a teenager.

Another big advantage mobile phones offer young people is independence, something that they crave and that parents want for them. My 12-year-old can do all sorts of tasks by herself that I, aged 12, would have relied on my parents to do: she can find out cinema times, source clothes she wants in shops, check what time the vet opens so we can get the rabbit's claws clipped. Her world has opened up thanks to her mobile phone, in an entirely positive way, and it will undoubtedly have knock-on effects for her development.

So what are my worries about mobiles? Well, much more than either brain tumours or arrested cognitive development, I'm concerned about addiction. I honestly can't remember the last time I saw my 15-year-old without her smartphone, other than perhaps when she was in the swimming pool on holiday last summer (and even then, it was positioned close by on a sunbed). Teenagers can seem obsessed with their mobile: checking them every few minutes, texting people all the time, checking to see how many "likes" they've got after they've posted on social media, refusing to put their phones to one side when they're sitting round the table for Sunday lunch …

Then again, that reminds me of some other people I know – me and my husband. We're pretty wedded to our phones as well. Challenge us about it (our teenagers certainly do) and we'll cheerfully reassure you that it's all to do with work, that we're just monitoring some news story, or that we're waiting for an important call. Sadly, though, I have to admit that the reason I check my phone too often is probably for the same reasons my daughters do the same with theirs: boredom and insecurity. Teenagers, of course, have these issues by the bucketload, and I sometimes think mobiles have made adolescents of us all.

So in many ways I suspect that, whatever the Imperial College survey discovers, the people we should be looking most closely at isn't our kids, it's ourselves. After all, we're grappling with the newness and the unknowns of mobile phone technology just as our children are, and the things they're getting wrong may be the things we're not role-modelling very well for them. Time, and this study, will hopefully tell us more.

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