Ten years ago you could walk across a middle school, high school or college campus and never see a cell phone. Now up to 75 percent of U.S. teens own mobile phones. And parents and teachers find it necessary to create rules and make decisions they've never considered before. Is it appropriate to talk on the phone during passing period? What about text messaging at the dinner table? On top of mobile phones, there's the ubiquitous iPod, with music that comes in digital packages rather than cellophane. And then there's Facebook. And MySpace. And IM (instant messaging). Not only do teens use them all, they use them all at the same time.
New technology has always bewildered those who have grown up without it. And it almost always raises questions about wise and ethical ways to use it. But this generation of technology — and technology users — may take the cake. It's easy for parents to throw up their hands and despair of ever getting a handle on it. But what you don't know about your teens' technology use may hurt them. On the other hand, staying current on your offsprings' techno-habits can provide opportunities for both meaningful conversation and personal growth.
This series of articles will help you better understand how you as a parent can relate to your kids technologically, while giving good guidance spiritually.
My husband is a college student. Since he's about a decade older than the average freshman, he has an interesting combination of insider and outsider perspectives on campus life. One phenomenon he finds fascinating is walking from one class to another and watching groups of people walking and talking. But not to each other. Commonly, they're all engaged in separate cell phone conversations.
If it seems that teens are beginning to sprout new addendums to their limbs that look strangely like mobile phones, it's because they practically are. According to a 2007 study by research firm iGR, 50 to 70 percent of 12- to 14-year-olds have their own cell phones, and the numbers are even higher among 15- to 17-year-olds. There's even talk of a "significant percentage" of 5- to 9-year-olds who have a phone.1 According to Disney Mobile, cellular users ages 10 to17 use their phones almost four hours per day during the summer, and an hour or so less than that during the school year.2
And they don't use their phones just for talking. They access the Internet. They text message. They instant message. They play music. They play games. They shoot video and take pictures. Not surprisingly, a recent survey by OTX reported that text messaging is the favorite mobile phone activity of 72 percent of teens.3
Parents who add their kids and teens to their family cell phone plans say they're doing so primarily for safety reasons.4 Teens appreciate the gesture, with 75 percent saying that a major benefit of having a cell phone is the security they feel in being able to reach their families at anytime. 5
On the flip side, there are some concerns to be weighed by parents who are considering handing their teens the privilege and responsibility of owning a cell phone. One is the cost — not because teen talk is necessarily expensive, but because the non-voice applications that teens favor tend to rack up expenses above and beyond the cost of the basic mobile plan. In fact, an almost-comical news story out of Australia recently revealed that more and more Aussie teens are seeking to declare themselves bankrupt after unknowingly running up cell phone bills in the $3,000 to $4,000 range by accessing "premium content."6
Even if your teen is wise enough to avoid cell phone bills in the quadruple digits, it's still important to talk about limits. For example, will you pay for unlimited text messaging and mobile Internet access for your teen? Or do you favor the idea of paying for a basic service plan and requiring your young person to foot the bill for extras?
Finally, driving while using a mobile phone is a concern that's perpetually in the news. Recently, teens have been at the epicenter of the issue. That's because several states have proposed or adopted laws that specifically target teens who use cell phones while driving. And it's not just talking and driving that lawmakers are worried about. It's texting and driving.7, 8 And lawmakers have good reason for concern.
A 2005 Ford Motor Company study showed that teen drivers are four times as distracted by cell phones as are adult drivers. When using a cell phone behind the wheel, teens failed to recognize 50 percent of the potentially dangerous occurrences on the road around them.9 If that's not a reason to have a serious conversation with your teen about cell phones and driving, I don't know what is.
It's something you probably imagined as a kid. You send a written message out into the universe and immediately your friend who lives across town — or across the country — replies. Just two decades ago, the technology was still the stuff of dreams for most folks. Now it's real and almost universally available. So it's not hard to understand the appeal of instant messaging to teenagers. Uninitiated adults can read on to find out just what instant messaging is and how teenagers use it.
Instant messaging (IMing, for short) uses free software to allow two Internet users to exchange typed messages in real time. Contact lists or "buddy lists" allow users to see which of their friends or acquaintances is online and send chat requests to each other.1 Once a communication window is opened, one user types his or her comments and immediately upon hitting "enter," the words appear on the other person's screen. Because of the quick delivery, IMing can be much more like a conversation than say, e-mail.
IM doesn't cost anything beyond the price of an Internet connection, so it becomes an alternative to paying long distance phone bills. In addition, a user can have multiple IM windows open at the same time — effectively allowing two, five or ten private conversations to occur simultaneously. And now, mobile technology allows instant messaging from cell phones, so it's possible to IM nearly anytime and anywhere. Windows, AOL, Yahoo! and Google all distribute instant messaging software, and technology solutions are becoming increasingly available that allow users of different IM providers to communicate with each other.2
A November 2007 poll performed by the Associated Press and AOL reveals some telling facts about young people and IM use:3
In many ways, these figures are just a snapshot of a new technology being embraced by a new generation. But in a few cases, teen IM habits indicate a need for parents to talk with their kids about wisdom and good choices. For example, 43 percent of teen IMers say they use it for discussions they prefer not to have in person — including potentially awkward or embarrassing ones about asking for a date or ending a relationship.7 And 57 percent of young people who use IM say that, after IMing while checking e-mail, their favorite multi-tasking combo is IMing while doing online research for homework assignments.8 In most cases, these aren't reasons to forbid teens to use IM — just opportunities for teachable moments about responsibility, healthy risk-taking in relationships, and the cultivation of good study habits.
You're trying to be casual, but your teen isn't buying it. You've just asked her about a picture she posted on Facebook. (Where in the world did she get that bikini top?! You know you never bought anything that skimpy for her.) And now she's firing up the tornado siren: "Buuuuuut Mo-om! You're not supposed to be on Facebook. You're old! You just want to spy on me and ruin my life. You don't trust me!"
You want to actively guide your teen's Internet use, but how can you do so in a way that doesn't seem distrustful or interfering? In a word, it's all about communication.
Rather than going to your teen's favorite social networking site, finding something disagreeable and then telling him you were looking at his profile, talk about it first. Let him know that a condition of his being allowed to use Facebook or the next big thing to come along is that you have access to his page. The purpose of this conversation is not to negotiate, but to underscore the value you place on being upfront and honest.
Though social networking sites allow you to send messages to other users, that doesn't mean you have to use that feature. Keeping an eye on what your teen is posting is great. But unless the two of you have a very unique relationship, making comments his friends can see is probably a no-no. Public embarrassment doesn't do much for family communication.
Teens create Web profiles to express themselves. They want to understand their own identities, and they want to tell others who they are. That's a normal part of growing up. But in cyberspace, it can be dangerous. So tour your teen's personal page with her and point out where she's posted details (often unthinkingly) that might pinpoint her specific identity and location to someone with less-than-noble intentions.
One wise aunt I know did this with her 15-year-old niece. The girl didn't think she had posted anything dangerous on her social network. Then her aunt showed her how a picture of herself in her dance team t-shirt could enable someone to narrow her identity not only to a particular city and school, but to a group of a dozen students within the school. The girl was appropriately freaked out and removed the photo from her profile.
Thinking through safety issues with your teen may help her to appreciate — or at least tolerate — your online presence. Even better, it'll make her more likely to be careful with what she posts on her page.
Even if you do a fabulous job of communicating with your teen, he may still be mortified that you read his online profile. Do it anyway. The protection you offer is so important to his well-being that it's worth getting a rap as an intrusive parent. Maybe years down the road — long after Facebook is obsolete — your teen will thank you.