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Cell Phones: Evolution Or Revolution?

This story was reported by Daniel Schorn.

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.

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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?

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."

Campbell acknowledges that teens are among the heaviest personal and social users, but says the ability to stay connected also enables teens to put distance between themselves and others; kids can use cell phones to control who they talk to. The obvious way to do that is through caller ID.

But teens also give their pals specific ring tones so they know who's calling; if it's 50 Cent ringing, it must be Samantha, or some other friend.

Aside from musical ring tones, young people – especially students - are also downloading a high-frequency ring tone which adults – think teachers - supposedly can't hear.

David Mazzuca, a university-bound graduate from Regis High School in New York City, says he uses special ring tones to screen calls; he sometimes even changes tones as his relationships evolve — for better or worse.

During a recent interview, Mazzuca, 18, admitted that a good friend got mad at him when he realized that he had been assigned a generic ring tone, versus a specialized, musical one. "Someone has to have the generic tone," Mazzuca argues.

Mazzuca bought a $30 link to download ring tones to his Nextel, without having to shell out the usual $1.99 per ring tone fee some providers are charging.

Ring tones have not only become a big business but have also made it into the mainstream of music, sort of: last year, a ring tone-inspired track called "Crazy Frog" made headlines when it topped the British Pop charts, beating a new release from the band Coldplay.

Geoff Mayfield, Director of Charts and Senior Analyst for Billboard, says a ring tone "says as much about your personality as what you're gonna wear that morning." launched a Top 40 ring tone chart in October 2004; the first No. 1 tone to hit the chart, "My Boo" by Usher and Alicia Keys, sold 95,000 copies.

Billboard has been keeping tabs on polyphonic and monophonic ring tones — synthesized versions of songs — but Mayfield says they are in the process of creating a new chart measuring "master tones," which are real clips of songs; the new chart is expected to be launched some time this summer.

According to Mayfield, BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated) estimated that people snapped up half a billion dollars' worth of ring tones in 2005 in the United States and are projecting sales of $600 million this calendar year.

The industries, he says, have been more mature in Europe and especially Asia, where users have been able to download full-length songs for some time.

Campbell agrees with that notion, saying that while the United States has not been at the forefront of the cellular technology curve, "we are definitely catching up."

Laurie Armstrong, a spokesperson of Finnish cell phone maker Nokia, says one reason why wireless technology has been more advanced in Europe is that major infrastructure changes — namely standardizing to one technology platform — fueled the cell phone push.

The company made its first phone with SMS (short message service) capability in 1994; Armstrong says texting became popular in Europe in the mid-1990s and began to gain popularity stateside in late 2001.

She added that while the cell industry made leaps overseas, the IP industry took over faster in the United States.

Earlier this month, Nokia launched a new phone, the N91, which can also be used as a digital music player, with capacity to hold about 3,000 songs. U.S. cell phone maker Motorola launched its own phones with music download capability, some models utilizing Apple's popular iTunes software.

Cell phones keep evolving in other ways as well, partially fueled by the popularity of text messaging and e-mail on the go. One example is T-Mobile's Sidekick, a cell phone with a flip-up screen that has a full keyboard, making it easier to type messages than on traditional cell phones. A new version, the Sidekick 3, is expected to hit the market in early July 2006.

"Keypads were never designed for text messaging the way it's being used," says Campbell, adding that teens have been able to adapt to the limitations of technology. A study published in May 2006 by the University of Michigan's communications department found that younger users are more likely to be familiar with texting than older users.

Mazzuca says while he is not a big fan of texting because of the cumbersome typing, it "can be finite to send one message," versus having a longer conversation.

So is it revolution or evolution when it comes to teens and cell phones? Campbell's argument that it's evolutionary may well hold true — teens have always been addicted to communicating with one another but advances in technology are making it easier to stay in touch.

Asked what would be revolutionary, Campbell says, "revolution would be when people will seamlessly connect to the Internet."

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By Daniel Schorn
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