Teenagers and smartphones are an unstoppable force. In 2011, 36 percent of US teens had a smartphone. One year later that number had skyrocketed to 58 percent—a solid majority of the total youth market. It would be hard to find a single high school in North America where the hallways aren’t crowded with teenagers texting and chatting away. Is all that time spent texting, listening to music, playing games, and fiddling with apps really good for kids? Some of the answers may surprise you.

The Good

  • Scientists have uncovered new evidence that today’s teenagers are able to adapt to their environment faster than people in their twenties and thirties. Their neurological agility—which many attribute to heavy use of technology, including smartphones—is helping researchers to identify mental illnesses while they’re still in their infancy.
  • 85 percent of mothers say that their children’s smartphones “definitely ease the back-to-school strain, making this time of year less stressful overall.” Smartphones help kids by empowering mothers to maintain contact with their children, keep tabs on their whereabouts, monitor their social media accounts, and plan their schedules.
  • When parents aren’t around, kids can use smartphones to capture video and photos to share with family later. Without access to that technology, families would miss out on many precious moments.
  • Teachers are discovering that apps for mobile devices like smart phones are some of the best, most engaging ways to teach difficult subjects like math and science. For example, the free NASA app offers videos, images, and interactive displays that bring space to life in a way that a lecture never could. Squeamish students or those with strongly-held ethical principles about animal cruelty can dissect virtual frogs on their phones, and math-phobic students can practice their multiplication tables via games and puzzles.

The Bad

  • Excessive use of smartphones, especially at nighttime, may cause teenagers to develop sleeping problems.
  • Smartphones can be costly for parents. From data packages to cellular service, in-app purchases to online gaming, and cell phone accessories to music downloads, it adds up fast!
  • Smartphones present a huge distraction in classrooms, where teachers are forced to compete for students’ attention. Most teachers ask their classes to put phones away or set them to “silent,” but students are inevitably tempted to look at them.

The Ugly

  • Some teenagers believe that smartphone dependency may be making them more lazy and preventing them from unlocking their potential.
  • Federal privacy laws don’t fully protect kids, so the information they send and receive through their smartphones can be sold. This has prompted calls for reform legislation.
  • Smartphones have been implicated in a number of high school cheating scandals. Students can surreptitiously look up information on their phones or even text answers to their classmates.
  • New and young drivers are particularly susceptible to driving while distracted by their cell phones. This has led to an upsurge in car accidents involving teenage drivers.

Parents know best whether their kids can handle smartphones. Smartphones are becoming ubiquitous among young people, but some kids, especially tweens and very young teenagers, might not need the capacities of a smartphone and might do just fine with a regular cell phone. But it’s equally clear that smartphones offer a number of important advantages that shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s up to parents to make the call—so to speak.