(Ian Martens/Canadian Press)
Cellphones a key element of youth culture
Last Updated Nov. 21, 2007
By Georgie Binks
Toronto student Tom Dymott, 17, has owned a cellphone for five years. "I always contact my friends through their cellphones — it's hard to track them down without it."
Tom's not alone. In fact, where young people gather these days, it's commonplace to see a bunch of cellphones flashing in the sunshine as kids clasp them to their ears or deftly text message each other.
But that doesn't necessarily put them within easy reach. Parents often initially supply their children with phones for security, believing they'll be able to reach their kids anywhere, anytime. In fact, nothing is further from the truth.
"Parents get sucked into buying these cellphones for their kids so they'll always know where their kids are, so they'll always be safe," says Donna Culbert, executive director of the parent support group Parents in Transition. "The kids take one look at the call display, see it's their parents and don't answer the phone."
Excuses range from having the phone turned off at the time to it not being charged, to being on the subway or in a 'dead' area where there's no reception. Some cellphones now have GPS trackers, although kids need to be carrying them to be tracked, leading to more creative tales about where a phone was left and why.
A Thai teenager talks on her mobile phone in Bangkok, Thailand, Jan. 26, 2006. (Sakchai Lalit/Associated Press)
After listening to a few of these excuses, many parents might be tempted to take away the phone, but that's easier said than done. Context, an American consumer research firm, studied cellphone users between the ages of 16 and 40 and discovered those without phones were pariahs.
"Between the ages of 15 and 24, there are only two questions — where's the party and what's everybody else doing?" says Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto consumer market analysis firm Solutions Research Group.
The answer to that first question can sometimes lead to some pretty big trouble.
A Toronto doctor whose son hosted a teen 'house party' last year when she was on vacation blames the resulting chaos on cellphones. "There were four boys in our basement and one phoned a couple of girls. The girls then contacted other girls who knew a bunch of kids who were leaving a party broken up by police. Before my son knew it, there were several hundred kids at our house — all thanks to one cellphone call."
Problems with cellphones and teens are numerous, and go far beyond unplanned huge parties. The expense of calls and text messages drives parents crazy.
"My parents freak out about the bill just about every month," Dymott admits.
Darlene Wallace, a mother of three in Carp, Ont., says she's seen frightening phone bills. "We've had 11-page bills. Who needs to talk a thousand minutes on the phone? They text message too much, as well. What in the world are they saying to each other? Even though my daughter is at home, her friends call on her cellphone."
At least, they used to. A couple of weeks ago, Stacey Wallace's phone got wet and stopped working. "Without it, I'm pretty much out of the loop," the 17-year-old moans. "After school, I go to work, and after I get off work, my friends are already out. I have no way of getting in touch with them, so I end up coming home and doing nothing."
Toronto student Rhys Balevicius, 15, lost his phone last year. It was a social catastrophe.
"I had one for about a year and that's how I organized my social life," Balevicius said. "After I lost the phone, I wasn't able to contact my friends and it was harder to see them. All my friends have cellphones. Now I use a pay phone or other people's phones."
Dymott says it's possible to stay alive socially without a phone. "Kids without cellphones just make sure they hang out with someone who does have a cellphone."
In fact, many parents have tales of woe to tell about lost or stolen cellphones, too.
"We've had one get wet. Another was in a pocket and went through the wash," says Wallace.
Dymott has had to replace two. "I got mugged once and it was taken. I jumped in a pool with another one without realizing it, but my parents didn't get too upset."
Impact on school
Parents and educators also worry that cellphones can interfere with school work. A Belgian study of kids aged 13 to 16 found that the more kids used their cellphones, the sleepier they were the next day. Naturally, the later they used them, the more tired they were, as well.
Schools have started to crack down on cellphone use. Earlier this year, the Toronto District School Board banned cellphone use on school property during school hours. Trustees gave several reasons for the decision, saying cellphones disrupt classes, distract students and enable cheating. Text messaging and e-mailing can be used as a modern version of passing notes.
All of this adds up to an awful lot of arguments against teens owning cellphones, but sometimes you need to put it in perspective — especially with teens.
"Recently, I was at the orthodontists and all these kids had their cellphones out and their thumbs were just a-going," Culbert says. "If that was the most parents in our group had to complain about, they'd be pretty happy."
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