Today’s cell phones are more than just phones, they are high-tech gadgets that also serve as a mini-computers. Today’s cell phones allow users to surf the web, conduct text chats with others, take photos, record video, download and listen to music, play games, update blogs, send instant text messages, keep a calendar and to-do list, and much more. For children and teenagers, they allow for anytime, anywhere communication especially with friends. With cell phones, children are always only a few buttons away, highly connected and instantaneously available. Parents who allow their children to have cell phones feel secure that they too can contact their sons and daughters at a moment’s notice.
Many parents also feel relieved to know that their children have easy access to them and to emergency personnel if needed. For instance, a cell phone is especially convenient for kids who participate in after school activities such as sports or clubs. If the activity ends early or late, or has been canceled, kids can call their parents to let them know about the changes. Kids can also call their parents to ask for permission should last-minute changes in their plans occur. Some parents even use their children’s cell phones as tracking devices that allow them to identify their child’s location at any time which would certainly come in handy in the event of a kidnapping or lost child.1 From a parent’s perspective, these are all good reasons to supply our children with cell phones. However, the convenience that cell phones offer us must be judged against the hazards they pose to all people and especially the cell phone user. The remainder of this chapter reviews the downsides of child cell phone use and provides recommendations for parents to consider.
When a voice conversation is overkill, too embarrassing (such as in, I don’t want to say “Hi Mom” in front of my friends), or just not convenient, text messaging (also known as texting) really comes in handy. Texting is the “killer app2” these days which has eclipsed e-mail communication now considered among kids as “old school.” Even many parents admit that it is one of the best ways to check up on their kids, remind them of important events, or quickly communicate a change in plans. So what do parents, educators, and other care takers need to know about the potential risks with text messages?
First, texting is a primary method for communicating harassment or intimidation as part of an overall cyberbullying strategy. For instance, some estimate that more than one in every eight children has been bullied by e-mail or text message. 3 Some do it directly although others are more creative. For example, a child will borrow another child’s cell phone (this child is actually the target of cyberbullying) and then use that phone to cyberbully a third student. The receiver of the text messages may then retaliate against the student who owns the cell phone, just as the first student planned. Another way that devious kids cyberbully by texting is that they will borrow their victims phone to text their own cell phone. The text message comes with the targets phone number which is now used to launch a relentless barrage of text message attacks from one or more other students.
Another problem is that texting may give predators a secret path to kids. The same cell phones that parents buy as safety devices for their children are the gadgets that pedophiles and predators use to “prep” kids for sexual encounters. One television station reported, for example, on a second-grader who was solicited by a 31 year old man on his cell phone. The child did respond to the text messages and an exchange of messages followed, including the man’s request of the child’s name, age and address. 4 In another case, a 26-year-old P.E. teacher admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old student in the school’s parking lot. Detectives from the town’s police department said they found nude pictures of the teacher on the teen’s cell phone along with text messages. 5 Some still remember when Florida law enforcement officials investigated former Republican Rep. Mark Foley, whose e-mails and instant messages to teenage former congressional pages shocked the country. These are just a few examples of many ... it does happen.
Have you heard of text-related injuries? The problem stems from logging in lots of miles on those tiny cell phone keypads. Literally, hundreds of billions of text messges are sent from around the world every year. One girl, Morgan Pozgar, entered a text messaging competition and said that she trained by sending on average 8,000 text messages a month to her friends – an astonishing rate of one every five and a half minutes. 6 You see, to text, people tend to hold cell phones in their fingers and press the tiny keys with their thumbs. This reverses the computer keyboard position, where clumsy thumbs are relegated to the space bar and let fingers do the typing. This can lead to Repetitive Stress Syndrom (RSI), the symptoms of which include pain and immobility in the joints, nerves and muscles from the fingers to the neck. RSI is caused by repetitive movements and fatigue resulting from natural stresses and strains on the body. 7
Although controversial, yet another possible risk of text messaging is how it may contribute to increasingly poor spelling and writing skills in youth. Because texting uses intentionally misspelled words, nonstandard abbreviations, letter substitutions, and little or no punctuation, some educators believe that it encourages poor literacy and a blunt, choppy style at odds with academic rigor. Yet, others say that texting is simply a new form of literacy. This all remains to be seen. 8
Cell Phone Distractions
“Driving While Dialing.” In November of 2005 a Highlands Ranch, Colorado 17-year-old allegedly lost control of his car while text-messaging and hit a bicyclist who died two days after the accident. The boy was charged with a misdemeanor which comes with a maximum sentence of one year in prison.
The fact that cell phones pose a great risk when combined with driving cannot be of any surprise to anyone. Let’s face it. First, drivers must take their eyes off the road while dialing. Second, people can become so absorbed in their conversations or other cell phone use that their ability to concentrate on the act of driving is severely impaired, jeopardizing the safety of vehicle occupants and pedestrians alike. In fact, the National Highway Transportation Safety Association has determined that driver inattention is a primary or contributing factor in as many as 25 percent of all police-reported traffic accidents.9 It’s not just talking and text messaging, the two most popular cell phone applications. Remember, cell phones have – and will continue to expand their capabilities as a central communication/collaboration device which already includes access to the World Wide Web, global positioning system (GPS) navigation, camera, voice memo recorder, productivity tools, e-mail clients, and much more. Already available is the ability to watch live television on your cell phone through cell phone service providers and other companies such as mobitv (http://www.mobitv.com/). So, in addition to drinking and driving, parents ought to seriously consider a rule for their children that includes no cell phone use and driving.
Time Away from Homework. Technology affords teens (and adults) a host of ways to do something other than what they are supposed to such as homework. In the adult world, it is a common experience that the lines between work and leisure have been blurred. Adults often work at home and play at work – e-mailing and text messaging friends and family, passing along jokes and family photos, shopping, viewing pornography, reading the news, and even gambling. Business owners are increasingly relying on stealth spying programs to snoop on their employees to make sure that their activities are both appropriate and work related. Their bottom lines are at stake. As parents, we too have the responsibility to help our children focus on their productivity. Their “bottom lines” are academic achievement and success.
Socializing on the phone while trying to do homework or study, no matter what your teen says, is not optimal. Realize too that you may not even hear a child talking on the phone and assume that the silence emanating from their rooms is the sound of a diligent student being productive. Realize, however, that children can use their cell phones for a variety of purposes that goes beyond talking such as updating their online blog (e.g., see Nokia Lifeblog which automatically builds your diary as you take photos and videos, and send and receive messages; see http://europe.nokia.com/nokia/0,,71742,00.html), text messaging, or posting photos to their social network spaces such as MySpace.
Since consumers must be 18 in order to purchase a cell phone contract in the United States, most parents are buying the phones their children carry. This is good news because parents can choose a plan that fits how the cell phone will be used and can review monthly cell phone bills which typically includes a log itemizing phone activity. However, problems still exist. For one, children can quickly go over their allotted minutes which can leave their parents with bills that can easily approach hundreds of dollars for the month. One thing that helps is the availability of cell phone plans that include unlimited minutes during certain hours or between certain cell phone carriers.
Choosing a plan with unlimited minutes can ease the risk of mounting monthly phone charges although does not solve the problem of understanding what kids do with those unlimited minutes. For instance, cell phone features such as text messaging and Web browsing are increasingly included in bundles with extra weekend and night minutes, in essence, giving children unlimited and unsupervised access to each other and to the Internet. Thus, parents who have a supervision system that works for computers at home may unknowingly give their children a work-around for getting into trouble outside of the home in a way that is even more convenient to the child.
1. Cell phone GPS services are made possible through one’s cellphone service provider or others such as http://www.catscommunication.com/, http://findme.mapquest.com/ or http://www.followus.co.uk/homeusers.html.
2. A killer application (commonly shortened to killer app), in the jargon of computer programmers and video gamers, has been used to refer to any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it provides the core value of some larger technology, such as a gaming console, software, operating system, or piece of computer hardware. In this sense, a killer app substantially increases sales of the hardware that supports it. Source: Killer application. (2008, January 26). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:05, January 27, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Killer_application&oldid=187089583
3. The survey was carried out by psychologists Nathalie Noret of York St. John University College and Ian Rivers, of Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh. Source: London Entertainment Guide. (March 21, 2007 ). More falling prey to cyber-bullying. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/23za3x
4. DeMentri , V. (March 7, 2006). Text Messages Latest Tool For Child Predators. Available online: http://www.nbc10.com/investigatorsarchive/7792369/detail.html
5. Oglesby, C. (January 11, 2008). Cells, texting give predators secret path to kids. CNN. Available online: http://www.cnn.com/2008/CRIME/01/11/teachers.charged/
6. Kennedy, B. A. (April 23, 2007). Magic thumbs! 13-year-old wins text-messaging championship. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/2yq3sw
7. OUT-LAW.COM. (February 22, 2006). Millions suffer RSI’ from text messaging: Xrcises 2 prolng yr txtin life. Available online: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/02/22/text_injury/.
8. Baggott, K. (December 21, 2006). Literacy and text messaging: How will the next generation read and write? Available online: http://www.technologyreview.com/Biztech/17927/
9. NHTSA Policy and FAQs on Cellular Phone Use While Driving. Available online: http://tinyurl.com/3adgct