Sexts, Lies and Smartphones

Harris Poll Uncovers the Not-So-Secret Lives of Young Smartphone Users and their Parents

Oct 17, 2013, 05:00 ET from Harris Interactive

NEW YORK, Oct. 17, 2013 /PRNewswire/ -- Any parent who has ever watched their child hunched over their smartphone, furiously tapping away, may have wondered – "What exactly are they doing?" And, "Should I check their phone?" These questions are what a recent Harris Poll sought to answer in a survey of 2,286 U.S. adults (ages 18 and older) and 1,217 U.S. youths (ages 8-18) surveyed online by Harris Interactive from August 14-19 and August 14-23, respectively. Youth surveys were conducted using Harris Interactive's Harris Poll YouthQuery omnibus platform. (Full findings, including data tables, available here)


As more Americans adopt such technologies, including more American children who are using their smartphones in ways that may make their parents cringe, the need may be arising for new and different household rules and parenting habits.

To snoop or not to snoop?

Many parents and kids appear to have found some common ground on the issue of parents monitoring their child's smartphone activity.

  • Among smartphone users ages 8-17, 43% say that their parents occasionally check their smartphone.
  • An identical 43% of parents (of smartphone-using kids under 18) say they occasionally monitor their child's smartphone activity...with their knowledge.
  • However, 35% occasionally check their child's smartphone without their knowledge. While parents display both habits, enough are doing it only on the sly to drive the combined percentage of these parents up to 57%.
  • When it comes to location tracking, two in ten (20%) smartphone users ages 8-17 say their parents occasionally use smartphones to track their location but a total of 25% of parents of smartphone users say they in fact do so (22% with their children's knowledge, 10% without). 

The Rules of Engagement

While many parents may struggle with just how much to monitor smartphone activity, just one-fourth (26%) of youths say they have a "contract" with their parents that they must follow in order to keep their smartphone and only two in ten (19%) have a smartphone "curfew," after which the phone must be off and/or not in their possession. Rules are more commonly reported by 8-12 year old smartphone users, with majorities of this younger set saying their parents check their smartphones to monitor activity (65%) and have disciplined them by taking away their smartphone (54%). Additional findings among this age group include:

  • Nearly four in ten report having a smartphone "curfew" (38%) and/or "contract" (37%).
  • Two in ten (20%) are not allowed to password-protect their smartphones, while over four in ten (43%) say they are allowed to do so but must share the password with their parents.
  • Three in ten (29%) say their parents use their own smartphones to track their location.

Parents DO Understand

Not to contradict the Fresh Prince, but parents – at least those of smartphone users – actually do seem to understand. While not boasting 100% accuracy, they appear to be generally realistic about many youth smartphone behaviors – whether they like them or not – and in their estimation of what children are doing with their smartphones.  

  • 46% of parents of smartphone users under 18 believe their child texts or messages while in class, while 42% of 8-17 year old smartphone users admit to ever doing so. The same trend holds true for some other behaviors, including:
    • Sending and/or receiving suggestive texts (18% parents, 19% 13-17 year olds)
    • Checking the phone while crossing the street (20% parents, 19% 8-17 year olds)

But kids aren't as bad as parents may think, as parents appeared to over-estimate bad behavior in a couple of areas:

  • 26% believe their smartphone-wielding children use their devices to share negative gossip, while only 18% of 8-17 year old smartphone users say they do so.
  • 14% believe their children have used their smartphones to cheat on a test in some way, while only 6% of 8-17 smartphone users admit to having done so.

Not Your Dad's Smartphone

Not surprising is that kids are more likely to use their smartphones as media devices, while adults are more likely to use them as... well...phones!

  • Potentially because it's the device most often in their possession, smartphone users ages 8-18 are more likely than the 18-and-up crowd to use their phones to listen to music (80% vs. 57%), play games (78% vs. 60%), watch videos (74% vs. 43%), engage in social media (73% vs. 60%) and video chat (35% vs. 18%).
  • Adults, on the other hand, are more likely than youths to use their phones for actually making calls (91% vs. 85%), along with emailing (78% vs. 56%), mapping or navigation (65% vs. 34%), research (47% vs. 31%) and purchase (25% vs. 14%) goods and services and find or research restaurants (45% vs. 21%).

For more information regarding the Harris Poll YouthQuery platform, please contact

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This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between August 14 and 19, 2013 among 2,286 adults (aged 18 and over), 1,059 of whom own and use smartphones and 102 of whom have children under 18 who own/use smartphones. A parallel study was conducted, also online, between August 14 and August 23, 2013 among 1,217 U.S. youths (aged 8-18), among whom 547 own and use smartphones and 472 are under 18 and own/use a smartphone. The latter utilized Harris Interactive's YouthQuery omnibus platform. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents' propensity to be online.

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words "margin of error" as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Interactive surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of Harris Interactive.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #73, October 17, 2013

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