Friday, January 27, 2006

Teens on the phone

Ithaca college recently hosted the first cellular phone film festival, receiving 178 entries from high school and college students across the country. Each submitted a 30-second film produced entirely with a cell phone camera. Dianne Lynch, dean of the Roy H. Park School of Communications at Ithaca College, told the Ithaca Journal that the film festival was about "acknowledging a sea change in the way this generation processes information."

To teens, the cell phone is a watch, a camera, a television, and a computer. But its most important function remains connecting them to people (not places). The changing and expanding function of the telephone is profound and largely ignored by anyone over the age of 30. Interestingly, teenagers themselves are oblivious to it, having grown up with a cell phone cupped in their hand. And adults without teen contacts also are clueless. But the parents of teens know it by the ring tones--at home, in the car, on the street, at Grandma's house--wherever and whenever. The continuous buzz of communication is (I admit) exhilarating. This is not the way it was when we were kids, when mom and dad controlled the family's single landline phone. Compared to today's teens, we were in solitary confinement.

Cell phones offer teenagers the kind of instant communication not experienced since our ancestors huddled together in a cave. They erase the miles and break down the walls we humans have spent tens of thousands of years putting between ourselves. The 56 percent majority of teens aged 12 to 19 own a cell phone, up from 25 percent in 2000 according to Teenage Research Unlimited, which tracks teen attitudes and behavior in a twice-yearly survey. Half of all teens own a cell phone by age 14. Here are the numbers:

Cell phone ownership by age, fall 2005
(Teenage Research Unlimited)
Age 12 36%
Age 13 39%
Age 14 50%
Age 15 58%
Age 16 66%
Age 17 61%
Age 18 69%
Age 19 71%

According to an ethnographic study of teen cell phone use by Context-based Research Group, teens without cell phones are out of the all-important social loop. They may miss out on more than that since cell phones are becoming the Grand Central Station of high-tech, with most teens are flocking to the platform. Where will it take them? It will be fun to find out.

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