Rule of thumb

It had to come -- a tale of terror in which cell phones bring about the end of civilisation as we know it. As the mobile phone continues its conquest of the world, from the Big Apple to the remotest village in Africa, anxieties about this technology abound. And Stephen King, master monitor of the cultural angst, has confirmed our worst fears. In his latest blockbuster, Cell, everyone using a mobile phone at 3.03pm on a certain afternoon is turned into a zombie, a brain-dead killer.
A reviewer puts us in the picture: "Soon, the zombified masses are roaming the streets by day and pausing to 'recharge' by night -- lying side-by-side in moonlit stadiums, like a thousand Nokias resting in their cradles. It's up to a crusty band of outsiders -- read: Luddites who cling to land lines -- to battle their way out of the cities and regroup in wireless-free zones up north…. So despicably evil is the cell phone that the survivors rarely speak its name -- they indicate it with a sad gesture, a thumb at the ear and a pinky held at the mouth."1

It's an apt sort of fantasy when you consider the astounding number of people who own mobile phones -- over 2 billion worldwide by the end of 20052, 80 per cent of the population in a high-tech society like Victoria, Australia -- and the way so many users tote them as they walk the streets or ride the trains, tuned to remote realities and oblivious to the world around them. King has picked up on this anti-social character of mobiles, so often complained about, and taken it to the extreme. We have been warned: communication can degenerate into meaningless babble that destroys social life and the individual's soul.

Mobile people need mobile phones
Convinced that mobile phones are, if nothing worse, superfluous to a civilised society, real-life Luddites ask, Why? What is the problem to which mobile phones are the answer?
Mobile people, of course. Swiss sociologist Hans Geser points to two contrary developments in human culture: population becomes more concentrated and stable, facilitating communication, but it also becomes more mobile, creating new spaces between people, which the mobile phone can bridge more completely than landline phones and email.3
Anyone can see that work and family life are much more diversified than they used to be. It is difficult to imagine how business could be conducted efficiently today without decision-makers, at least, being on call and able to adapt their plans. Many parents have also come to rely on these devices to coordinate family schedules in unforeseen circumstances, or to check that their kids are safe and where they ought to be at any given time. So far, so useful.

But, even at this limited level of use, new problems appear. A study which followed more than 1300 adults for two years found that those who consistently used a mobile phone or pager throughout the period were more likely to report negative "spill-over" between work and home life -- and, in turn, less satisfaction with their family life. This was especially true for working women.4

It seems that among men, consistent use of mobile phones allows more work issues to creep into family time. But for women, the spill-over tends to go in both directions -- being "connected" means that work cuts into home time, and family issues seep back into work life. In this way mobile phones are opening more lines for stressful exchanges between family members, rather than positive ones.

The digital leash
And what of the mobile as a "digital leash" whereby parents can keep track of their offspring and kids can remain within reach of mum's apron strings? The industry is certainly marketing mobiles as a safety device. Its latest development is phones for young children that come in cute animal shapes, with limited user functions but, most significantly, global positioning system (GPS) technology. This sends text alerts when a child leaves nominated safe zones and allows parents to check their child's location at any time.

Aside from the fact that this system can never be foolproof, it raises weighty questions about parent-child relationships. Will it distance parents from their children, emphasising physical safety at the expense of a child's moral and emotional well-being? Will it lead to a "surveillance" mentality which is inimical to trust? Will it be another excuse for mothers of young children to enter full-time employment, against their better judgement and at the expense of their own well-being?

When it comes to older children there may be a stronger argument for mobile contact. But at what age? Worn down by pester power, many parents are giving their kids standard mobile phones at the ages of 10 or 115, and 80 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds in Britain are said to have a mobile phone. It has become a rite of passage to adolescence, essential equipment for entering high school where the ability to whisk a handset out of a smart little cover and start thumbing text messages is the mark, par excellence, of belonging to the peer group.

Adolescents do, of course, use their mobiles to contact their parents and respond to parental calls. But one writer's scepticism in this regard seems typical: "Phone your teenage child and nine times out of ten your call will be diverted to the mailbox. Face it: she doesn't want to talk to you -- unless she needs a lift."6 No, the teenies thumbing their phones as they stream out of school in the afternoon are more likely to be texting sweet nothings to their mates, playing a game, or simply showing that they are "cool".

Harmless fun?Harmless enough, some would say, and yet with this technology one thing rapidly leads to another. Privacy may bring with it the temptation to adopt language or start a relationship a youngster would not dream of when using the family telephone or computer. This can be facilitated by text chat rooms, a development already notorious for its use by sexual predators on the internet. Camera phones add visual content and greater danger to this scene. British mobile operator O2 provides a useful overview for parents on what mobiles can do.7
Today's third generation phones (3G) open up an ever-expanding world: pop gossip, football scores, the entertainment pages of various mobile companies and, increasingly, the internet. The "fun" aspect of mobiles targets the youth market, and, although major operators subscribe to codes of practice aimed at protecting minors, much of the material that can be accessed on the web -- and much that may be distributed by the operators themselves in future -- is more or less pornographic.
Indeed, as a recent MercatorNet article pointed out8, one of the websites most popular with young people, MySpace, is trawled by pornographers and predators. Unfortunately, it is about to become even more ubiquitous with the launch of a cellular service that will let users post to the site for free.9
Even without such inducements a Norwegian study of more than 10,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 18 found that teenagers who use cell phones a lot are much more likely to be sexually active than those who use them a little or not at all. According to the study's author, Professor Willy Pederson of the University of Oslo, the phones "are as harmful as porn sites and adult magazines" to this age group. And that was two years ago.
Making the best of itIt begins to look as though Stephen King is onto something: the trail of the "evil" cell phone. But, of course, even the smartest phone is only a piece of technology for people to use -- for good or ill. German sociologist Stefan Bertschi, co-author of a recent collection of essays called Thumb Culture: The Meaning of Mobile Phones for Society, argues that mobiles amplify existing cultural trends rather than create new ones.10
At the same time, he says, the mobile is a strong medium that shapes culture through its interpersonal and mass communication potential. The degree of dependence on it that evolved in no time at all shows how necessary it was. Bertschi is surely right when he concludes, "The mobile phone is here to stay and we will have to make the best of it."
How can parents, then, make the best of it? If sociologists are right about "amplification", allowing a pre-teen or teeny to have their own mobile phone will not cause problems so much as show up problems already there: lack of openness with parents and lack of parental knowledge of the child.
But even without such problems, what real benefit does it bring to youngsters? At best they are likely to fritter away time and money on trivia, at worst, stumble into dark corners of the internet. It is not even clear yet whether radiation from mobiles is more harmful to children. Again, being in charge of a phone is quite a responsibility for a youngster in view of the fact that this expensive item may get lost or stolen.
For these and other reasons parents tend to be conservative when they are asked about the appropriate age for having a mobile phone. In a recent New Zealand poll the range was from 10 to 18+ years, with 44 per cent plumping for 15 or 16 as “soon enough” for a personal phone, and 13 per cent opting for 18 or older. Even academics can be cautious. Given that the reported average age of first ownership of a mobile throughout Western countries was around 10 years, Bertschi was surprised when experts he surveyed were extremely divided on the question, giving ages from 6 to 16 years.
For today's teenagers the mobile phone is a consumer item like no other, and the pressure on parents to give in to nagging is extreme. To resist implies character-building on both sides. An American parent participating in an online debate says she and her husband have held out to the age of 16 with their daughter, but are considering saying yes on a few conditions: "First, the charger lives in our bedroom -- attempting to limit mysterious middle-of-the-night events…Second, she pays a portion of the fees. Third, we're thinking of linking it to getting her driver's license" -- for road safety reasons.
Kathie McCarthy concludes: "With every new concern that comes along, we have to go into it with eyes open, keep the discussion going with our kids, and be perfectly willing to be the oddball parents for as long as possible."11
Most important, perhaps, is the example parents give in this area. If mum and dad are mobile-dependent, making plans on the run and allowing regular spill-over from work to home and home to work, kids will learn that you can't live without these things. Mobile phones, in all likelihood, will not cause civilisation to collapse. But if the problem to which they answer includes chaos at home, lack of commitment to plans and lack of communication, they certainly will not make us more civilised.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.

Notes1 "Can you fear me now?" Bryan Curtis, Slate, Feb 8, 2006
2 Cellular News, Jan 24 3 "Towards a Sociological Theory of the Mobile Phone" 4 "Cell phones are disrupting family life," HealthDay News, Dec 9, 2005 5 "11 16 Mobile: Examining mobile phone and ICT use amongst children aged 11 to 16," Jane Vincent, University of Surrey, Dec 2004 6 "What kids do," Frank Furedi, Spiked
7 8 "Filling up MySpace," Matthew Mehan, MercatorNet. Feb 25, 2006.
9 "Cellular service to sell MySpace phones," Detroit News, Feb 16, 2006. 10 Thumb Culture: The Meaning of Mobile Phones for Society, Peter Glotz, Stefan Bertschi, Chris Locke (eds), Books on Demand, Germany 2005 11 "We have to be willing to be oddball parents," Spiked.


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