There’s no doubt youth have embraced mobile technology: in Canada, young people ages 13 to 24 are the largest group of wireless phone users. Today’s cell phones are personal, palm-sized entertainment and social networking tools from which teens can play games, communicate, send messages, exchange information and share videos and images. Most importantly, from the perspective of youth, cell phones are portable, accessible and discreet, with text messaging or “texting” rapidly becoming the preferred way for them to chat with friends. (Given this social aspect, it’s not surprising that adolescent girls text more than adolescent boys.)
Parents like the cost savings of texting over phone calls, but teens are not necessarily selecting text messaging to save money. Teens like texting because it’s private, it’s fun, it lets them communicate while doing other things, they can reach a number of friends at one time – and it’s discreet. A number of youth say they can write text messages blindfolded – which is a handy skill to have when your cell phone is hidden under your desk during class.
Some adults worry about this new type of written communication, believing that texting is eroding writing skills. Others, on the other hand, believe that this new way of communication is actually rejuvenating teens’ interest in writing. Research on this subject is just emerging, so we’ll have to wait to find out.
On an emotional level, cell phones represent intimate multimedia journals that capture important moments in the lives of teens and their friends. Unfortunately, some of these moments may not be ones that we’d like to have a permanent record of or see shared with unintended audiences. In recent years “sexting” – where teens exchange sexually explicit messages and images – has become a growing concern. In addition, the emotional distance and potential for anonymity texting provides can fuel harassment and bullying behaviour.
Red flags have also been raised around possible health risks associated with cell phone use specifically, relationships between the radio frequencies used by cell phones and brain cancer. Although this has not yet been conclusively proven, on its website Health Canada notes “At present, the evidence of a possible link between radio frequency energy exposure and cancer risk is far from conclusive and more research is needed to clarify this “possible” link. Health Canada is in agreement with both the World Health Organization and IARC that additional research in this area is warranted.”
As any adult who uses a smartphone knows, having access to constant communication can be quite distracting – this is true for youth as well. Recent research has highlighted the significant numbers of young novice drivers who are talking or texting on cell phones while driving.
Talking to kids about cell phones
Cell phone usage and choosing a plan
Kids and teens tend to consider cell phones their own personal property – even when their parents are paying the bills! In reality, having a cell phone is a privilege, not a right: and with this privilege comes responsibilities. Parents should:
- Involve their child in the process of selecting a phone and plan to help them understand, right from the start, the costs associated with having a cell phone as well as the features and limitations of the plan.
- Review monthly bills together to stay on top of and curb excessive cell phone use and additional costs incurred by accessing the Internet or purchasing applications (or “apps”) and ringtones.
Parents also need to establish the parameters of cell phone usage – and stick to the same rules they set for their kids.
- Discuss where and when cell phone use is acceptable.
- For parents of teens who drive, establish a “no using cell phones while driving” rule (it is against the law in some provinces to use hand-held cell phones while driving). Also, encourage them to help their friends stay safe by handling any phone calls when a buddy is at the wheel.
Discussing ethical and social aspects of cell phones
It’s important to discuss the ethical and social aspects of texting and talking on cell phones with young people.
- Help them understand that cell phones are not necessarily private.
- Set passwords and device locks in case their phones are lost or stolen.
- Explain that once an image or text message has been sent from their phones, they have no control over who it might be forwarded to next.
- Encourage kids to practice critical thinking and ethical behaviour:
- Do they respect their friends’ phones? Would they “borrow” someone else’s to play a prank on them?
- How do they decide whether or not to photograph or video something? What criteria do they use to decide whether to share or send a video or photo? Tell them to respect their instincts – if they feel pressured or uncomfortable about sending someone an image or message, that’s usually a pretty good indication that they shouldn’t.
- Talk about cyberbullying and review what they should do if they are targets or witnesses.
- Most importantly, let them know that they can come to you for help if things go wrong.
If parents are not “texting virtuoso’s”, they should ask their children to give them some pointers. After all, it’s an efficient and concise way of communication that adults don’t use to the fullest.
Establishing clear guidelines and consequences and touching base regularly and talking with young people about both appropriate use and potential pitfalls can help ensure that cell phones are a positive part of a young person’s life.