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Should teenagers have smartphones? Utah teacher weighs in on viral social media post

PLEASANT GROVE — Many millennials can probably remember expressing their angst on Myspace and sharing sad songs with other downtrodden adolescents whom they'd never met in person, back when social media first became a thing.

That was just the beginning.

The latest batch of teens, otherwise known as Gen Z, is maturing in a world where most of them have a cellphone and social media is right at their fingertips 24/7.

But what are they really doing when their eyes are glued to the screen?

One Pleasant Grove ninth-grade science teacher tried to find out. Skipper Coates asked 85 of her students — ages 14 and 15 — to finish the sentence: "What my parents don't know about social media is..."

Last week, she uploaded photos of some of the teenagers' anonymous answers in a Facebook post and a post on the popular blog Love What Matters. The responses went viral, being shared more than 80,000 times by Tuesday.

Some of the answers may frighten parents.

"theirs (sic) a lot of ciber bullying, sexting, porn and people that don't care about you and try to make you feel like crap," one student writes.

"I'm on it till like 2 a.m. every day," another claims.

"I get nudes from boys I don't even know. I expose and make fun of everyone and I love catfishing," one student writes.

"I have a secret rant account I talk about my mental health about. I also have internet friends," another states.

Of the 85 kids involved, only five said they didn't have social media accounts. Confessions like the ones above were common among the other 80 students' responses, Coates said.

According to the science teacher, all the students get A's on average, and "by all accounts, they are 'good kids.'"

"There have always been bullies, there have always been promiscuous teens, and there have always been those on the fringe who experiment with drugs," Coates writes in her Love What Matters post.

However, social media has given today's generation of teens a "platform" for these behaviors at all times of the day, and an audience that "doesn't understand long-term consequences," she said.

Coates' interest in the topic is personal. She has an 11-year-old son.

"He's getting really interested in when we're gonna give him a smartphone, and he's gotta get a SnapChat account, and he's hearing all of this kind of at his age," she said.

She says she fights a battle every day in the classroom because "kids cannot put the phones down."

When she asked for her students' opinions on the topic, she didn't expect them to be "so honest," she said.

"I’ve been in the classroom for the introduction of Pinterest, SnapChat, Instagram, and Facebook Messenger. As I’ve watched this technology change, I’ve seen a direct correlation to the happiness of the kids in my classes," she wrote.

Their answers led her to put out this caution to other parents: "Your kids are living in a world that you are not invited to be a part of. And they know how to keep you out."

"Your teenager does not need a smartphone," she suggests.

However, Carrie Rogers-Whitehead disagrees.

"I don't feel like we're delving into the heart of the issue," she said.

A mother herself, Rogers-Whitehead serves as CEO of Digital Respons-Ability, a Utah-based company that seeks to educate people to be wise and "empowered digital citizens."

Before taking away teenagers' smartphones, a more effective way to address problems is the "prevention science model," Rogers-Whitehead told the Deseret News.

"The technology is a tool. It's the underlying issues that cause the problems," she said.

The prevention science model addresses and seeks to solve issues that cause negative behaviors.

For example, "if I have been cyberbullied and I have negative peer influence, I have higher risk factors for negative behavior online," Rogers-Whitehead said.

If a teen is lonely, technology can provide them a "wonderful way to connect," or it can be a tool for peers to negatively influence them, she said.

The Digital Respons-Ability CEO suggests that it is natural for teenagers to hide certain things from their parents. But if a teen is hiding a lot, it shows that they may feel distrust, shamed or unsafe, she said.

By taking away teenagers' cellphones, video games or other outlets, parents won't get to the underlying issue, and the outlet will need to be replaced with another, Rogers-Whitehead added.

She recommends ways parents can help kids "create healthy technology norms" from a young age. Parents should "model" healthy technology uses by doing things like putting away their phones during family time, for example.

"What they see as normal in the home, they're going to perpetuate outside the home," she said.

Between the ages of 8-12, parents should teach kids how to use digital accounts and should manage their children's accounts and passwords, Rogers-Whitehead says.

By the time children become teenagers, Rogers-Whitehead recommends letting kids manage their own accounts but monitoring their activity.

Stop Bullying, a website managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, also discusses many of the risks children face every time they get online and how parents can stay digitally aware. It also suggests parents watch their teens' online activity and establish rules early on.

"We're just figuring it out because we didn't have those norms (when we were young)," Rogers-Whitehead said of parenting in the digital age.

"It's a person issue. It's not necessarily a technology issue," she added.

Since her story went viral, the parents of her students and community members have been supportive, Coates said.

However, only one of her students has had their phone taken away. But most have said that their parents talked to them about the issue.

The science teacher says she is happy to have helped start a conversation.