Take the F train from Manhattan to Brooklyn and you will experience a phone phenomenon, of sorts. As the subway lurches above ground for a stretch of two stations, teens immediately get on their cell phones, frantically sending text messages, checking voicemail and making calls as if their lives depended on it, before the train descends back into the darkness of the tunnel.
Many exec-types, sporting BlackBerrys, display a similar zeal to stay in touch during those brief moments of commuter connectivity, but their devices generally don't play hip-shaking tunes when they ring, nor do their work e-mails evoke public displays of emotion, angst or giggling.
So what is it about the cell phone? Are teens turning into anti-social phone addicts, shunning face-to-face communication in favor of a cellular hook-up or a text messaging session?
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Not so, says Scott Campbell, an assistant professor at the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Michigan.
"I think what it is doing is keeping them perpetually connected between face-to-face communications," he says.
Instead of replacing traditional communication, Campbell says teens are taking advantage of the autonomy and freedom that new technologies afford them. "Technology is not changing teens — they are in control, they are taking advantage of the advances," he says.
According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a survey of technology use by teens published in July 2005, some 45 percent of American 12 to 17 year olds already say they have cell phones. And while they may have a cell phone, the survey also found that over half of those teens actually spent more time talking on landlines.
Amanda Lenhart, the senior research analyst of the Pew survey, says when it comes to staying in touch with friends and peers, teens will take "the available option, whatever it be."
So while teens in the pre-cell phone era tied up their parents' landline or passed notes in class, teens today just have a greater range of options, including the phone, e-mail, instant messaging and texting.
But that freedom to stay in touch can cut both ways. Campbell points out parents can use the phone to keep tabs on their kids — by being able to see their kids' phone bill, parents can get an idea who their teen is chatting with; what the billing statement doesn't show is the content of the calls and text messages. This past April, service provider Sprint introduced a plan that allows parents to track their kids — or at least their phones — using GPS technology.
Parenting educator Deb Cohen, from The Parenting Center At Abington in suburban Philadelphia, says the evolution of communication can actually benefit some teens by helping them form their own identity, separating from the parents.
"Technology can be good for kids who are a little on the shy side, since there's a little anonymity," says Cohen, who is also the mother of two teens.
But Cohen agrees that some teens — especially socially-driven ones — can get addicted to the constant stream of communication since they may have a hard time limiting themselves. Her advice for concerned parents is to begin keeping a log or tally on how long their teen is spending on the cell phone or computer, "so you can talk objectively to them, since they are not aware how long they may be hooked in."
"Sit down and negotiate with the kids on what you would feel would be reasonable," Cohen recommends. But since some kids are not going to self-monitor, parents may need to get tough and "take things away for a while."