- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

Boomer Rose is almost never without his cellular phone. The funny thing is, he says he doesn’t talk on it that much. Instead, Boomer, 16, takes pictures, plays video games and, most important, text messages his friends. Most of the time it is a quick “Hey, what’s up?” even if his neighborhood buddies are across the driveway or in the same room, the Purcellville teen says.

“My cell phone is my life,” Boomer says, flipping it open at Tysons Corner Center on a recent afternoon. “I would say I send about 1,000 text messages a month. It is just like talking. It makes things easier. I can talk to about 19 people at once.”

Teenagers and telephones have always had a very close relationship. But a quick look around the mall — where half the people are on the phone and about a dozen stores and kiosks sell phones and accessories — is evidence that cellular phones have had an impact Alexander Graham Bell never could have imagined.

For teens, the cellular phone has become a form of entertainment, a fashion statement, a personality profile, an electronic bulletin board and instant information source — and the teens can call mom and dad and let them know they’ll be late, too.

“The mobile phone has meant a sea change in family life,” says James Katz, director of the Center for Mobile Communications Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It is an extension of entertainment, your personality, your image.”

Parents picked up on the trend as a way to ensure their teens keep in touch at a time when they are testing their independence, Mr. Katz says.

Meanwhile, teenagers — who never have known a world without ATMs, cable TV, video games or the Internet — have become an excellent target group for cell phone companies.

Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a Chicago-based market research firm, says when teens tell their parents “everyone has a cell phone,” they are not kidding.

About 50 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in America have a cellular phone, up from about 19 percent five years ago, Mr. Wood says.

“That 50 percent number is going to go up,” he says. “Also, the age of entry into the category has dropped. It used to be that when a teenager reached driving age, an argument could be made that they needed the phone for safety. Today, if you are entering high school, it is routine to be equipped with a phone.”

Julie Novak, 15, of Bellmore, N.Y., got her first cell phone when she was 13 and she was headed across the country on a teen tour.

“That way she would call us,” says Julie’s mother, Freya.

Julie’s phone is practically old-fashioned in that it doesn’t take pictures or have tunes downloaded into it like the phone of her friend Melissa Birch of Burke. Melissa, also 15, has different rings for her best friend (“What’s Love,” by Fat Joe), her mom (“a boring firefly sound”) and everyone in between.

Julie says she usually uses the phone for typical things like text messaging her friends. However, she sees the logic of having a phone for safety. She once was at a mall near her home when there was a shooting, she says. She quickly called her father to come get her.

A ‘must-have’

Several things happened in succession to create Cell Phone Nation. First was September 11, Mr. Wood says. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, parents and children wanted to feel safer and more connected, so they started buying more phones and more minutes.

Schools, which used to ban cell phones, also started to relax rules after the terrorist attacks. Most districts say students can bring the phones to school, but they must be turned off in class. Many students, including Boomer Rose, say that is a tough rule to police and most students merely turn their phone to a silent ringer at that time.

Another factor: the emergence of family plans and other group deals by cell phone companies. For less than $10 a month, a parent can add a teen to his or her existing phone plan. There also are prepaid phones, which some families prefer because it lets teens make their own decisions about using minutes.

“When we survey people, safety is still on the list of why they want their children to have cell phones,” says Alexa Kaufman, regional spokeswoman for Cingular Wireless.

In addition to promoting safety, phone companies see teens as the consumers of the present and the future.

Cingular co-sponsored a concert tour with Vans shoes this summer. It sent college students with camera phones to the political conventions, where they reported on election issues and kept a moblog (a commentary of events typed into their phones).

Most of the big cell phone companies have Web sites where young consumers can download ring tones and games.

The most popular ring tones downloaded by Cingular customers are hip-hop tunes. If teens tire of having Eminem as their incoming call signal, they can choose from nearly 2,000 others, including quotes from celebrities and sound effects such as breaking glass.

“The ring tones and covers allow you to personalize,” Ms. Kaufman says. “If you listen to kids talk, there is a one-upmanship with their phones. They are looking for the greatest phone, the next technology, so it is important for companies to add more and more functionality.”

The next big thing is going to be wireless gaming, through which users can play against someone on another phone, and phones with streaming video capabilities, she says.

Mr. Katz says Global Positioning System technology is an emerging trend that might put an end to cell-phone fibbing. With GPS, a teenager can no longer say he is at the library if he is at a concert, for instance.

“Then it will become a whole new battle over whether or not you are going to block your GPS,” he says.

Together, but isolated

Robbie Blinkoff, a Baltimore anthropologist who studies consumer behavior, says teens are so used to communicating with cell phones that sometimes the line between talking on the phone and in person is blurred.

In 2003, Mr. Blinkoff and his associates at the Context-based Research Group studied the behavior of 144 cell-phone users ages 16 to 40. They found that teens saw little difference between meeting face to face and talking on the phone.

In fact, if a teen doesn’t have a cell phone, it is almost as if he or she doesn’t exist in the eyes of some, Mr. Blinkoff says. The common trend is to enter someone’s cell number into your phone’s memory upon meeting.

“If you are not in someone’s cell memory, you are not able to be connected with them and might not be spoken to,” he says.

The larger issue there is that teens are developing more complex levels of relationships, Mr. Blinkoff says. Being in someone’s phone doesn’t really mean you know that person.

It means you met and have the other person’s number and can reach him or her. You don’t have to know where that person lives and other personal details, he says.

“It’s creating a world of shallow relationships that are created quickly and disappear quickly,” he says. “It is kind of like e-mail. Ninety percent is providing quick information. Then there are the few people who take time to write back a longer note.”

Even in the home, cell phones have had an impact, Mr. Blinkoff says. The device that connects family members while they are out can do the opposite when they are together.

“The ability to have constant contact has changed things around,” he says. “It is helpful that people feel more secure, but it can also be tough. The phone used to be in one place in the house, and parents were able in some ways to monitor what was going on.”

Mr. Katz of the Center for Mobile Communication Studies says cell phones have opened up communication for teens, but “walled them off” from their parents.

“In that sense, phones have become a barrier and a distraction,” he says. “It allows kids to check out from the family scene.”

As with anything in parenting, setting down a few guidelines such as “no answering during dinner,” or “you pay for extra minutes used,” will only help, Mr. Katz says.

However, some cell phone abuse goes beyond avoiding mom and dad. Camera technology has led to a slippery slope of ethics, Mr. Wood says.

“Teens are taking pictures of everything and anything,” he says. “It’s almost like a ‘Jerry Springer’ or ‘Girls Gone Wild’ type of thing. There are more candid pictures and more outrageous.”

One of the most troubling trends is “upskirting,” Mr. Wood says. This is when boys sneak up on a girl wearing a skirt and take a picture of her behind.

In early 2003, 12 University of Maryland students were caught cheating in an accounting exam using a text-message phone. The students brought phones into the exam and were fed answers from other students who were reading an answer key online.

Cropping up nationwide are “alibi and excuse clubs,” where cell phone users can call on strangers to phone them to get them out of bad dates or out of trouble with suspicious spouses. Some alibi clubs also offer recorded sounds, such as a hacking cough to play if you are calling in sick.

“The cell phone has given teens a tool that they can find many uses for,” Mr. Wood says. “There is a lot of lying going on. They don’t have to be where they say they are going to be. They are not only using these tactics with their parents, they are using them to sneak around from one another.”

MORE INFO:

BOOKS —

• ”HOW RUDE! THE TEENAGERS’ GUIDE TO GOOD MANNERS, PROPER BEHAVIOR, AND NOT GROSSING PEOPLE OUT,” BY ALEX PACKER, SAGEBRUSH, 1999. THIS BOOK IS ABOUT TO BE RERELEASED WITH UPDATED SECTIONS ON TECHNOLOGY AND MANNERS.

M”TRUST ME MOM, EVERYONE ELSE IS GOING,” BY RONI COHEN-SANDLER, VIKING BOOKS, 2002. THIS BOOKS GIVES GOOD INSIGHT INTO PEER PRESSURE AND KEEPING UP WITH WHAT IS COOL AMONG TEENS.

ONLINE —

• CELLMANNERS.COM (WWW.CELLMANNERS.COM), A SITE FOUNDED AND EDITED BY HUMOR WRITER CAROL PAGE, IS A PLACE FOR PEOPLE TO VENT THEIR FEELINGS ABOUT CELLULAR PHONE RUDENESS.

• TEENS ARE LOGGING INTO THESE CELLULAR PHONE COMPANIES’ WEB SITES TO PURCHASE PHONES, UPGRADE FEATURES AND CHECK OUT THE LATEST TECHNOLOGY:

• CINGULAR: WWW.RUCINGULAR.COM

• SPRINT: WWW.SPRINTPCS.COM

• T-MOBILE: WWW.T-MOBILE.COM

• VERIZON: WWW.VERIZON.COM

• VIRGIN: WWW.VIRGINMOBILE.COM

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