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Cell phones and texting

According to Project Teen Canada, 54 per cent of teenagers use cell phones daily. For parents, cell phones are an easy and practical way to stay connected to and keep tabs on their kids while giving them independence. But for young people, cell phones are much more than a tool for chatting with mom or dad – they’re an essential part of their social lives.

There’s no doubt youth have embraced mobile technology: in Canada, young people ages 13 to 24 are the largest group of wireless phone users. Today’s cell phones are personal, palm-sized entertainment and social networking tools from which teens can play games, communicate, send messages, exchange information and share videos and images. Most importantly, from the perspective of youth, cell phones are portable, accessible and discreet, with text messaging or “texting” rapidly becoming the preferred way for them to chat with friends. (Given this social aspect, it’s not surprising that adolescent girls text more than adolescent boys!)

Parents like the cost savings of texting over phone calls, but teens are not necessarily selecting text messaging to save money. Teens like texting because it’s private, it’s fun, it lets them communicate while doing other things, they can reach a number of friends at one time – and it’s discreet. A number of youth say they can write text messages blindfolded – which is a handy skill to have when your cell phone is hidden under your desk during class!

Some adults worry about this new type of written communication, believing that texting is eroding writing skills. Others, on the other hand, believe that this new way of communication is actually rejuvenating teens’ interest in writing. Research on this subject is just emerging, so we’ll have to wait to find out.

On an emotional level, cell phones represent intimate multimedia journals that capture important moments in the lives of teens and their friends. Unfortunately, some of these moments may not be ones that we’d like to have a permanent record of or see shared with unintended audiences. In recent years “sexting” – where teens exchange sexually explicit messages and images – has become a growing concern. In addition, the emotional distance and potential for anonymity texting provides can fuel harassment and bullying behaviour.

Red flags have also been raised around possible health risks associated with cell phone use specifically; relationships between the radio frequencies used by cell phones and brain cancer. Longitudinal research is just starting to emerge, but according to the Health Canada Web site “radio frequency energy from cell phones poses no confirmed health risks.”

As any adult who uses a BlackBerry knows, having access to constant communication can be quite distracting – this is true for youth as well. Recent research has highlighted the significant numbers of young novice drivers who are talking or texting on cell phones while driving.

Talking with your kids about cell phones

Kids and teens tend to consider cell phones their own personal property – even when their parents are paying the bills! In reality, having a cell phone is a privilege, not a right: and with this privilege comes responsibilities.

  • Involving your child in the process of selecting a phone and plan is one way to help them understand, right from the start, the costs associated with having a cell phone as well as the features and limitations of the plan.
  • Reviewing monthly bills together is another way to stay on top of and curb excessive cell phone use and additional costs incurred by accessing the Internet or purchasing applications (or "apps") and ringtones.

It’s also important to establish the parameters of cell phone usage – and to stick to the same rules you set for your kids!

  • Sit down and discuss where and when cell phone use is acceptable.
  • For parents of teens who drive, establish a “no using cell phones while driving” rule (it is against the law in some provinces to use hand-held cell phones while driving). Also, encourage them to help their friends stay safe by handling any phone calls when a buddy is at the wheel.

Discuss with your kids the ethical and social aspects of texting and talking on cell phones.

  • Help them understand that cell phones are not necessarily private.
  • Set passwords and device locks in case their phones are lost or stolen.
  • Explain that once an image or text message has been sent from their phones, they have no control over who it might be forwarded to next.
  • Encourage your kids to practice critical thinking and ethical behaviour:
  • Do they respect their friends’ phones? Would they “borrow” someone else’s to play a prank on them?
  • How do they decide whether or not to photograph or video something? What criteria do they use to decide whether to share or send a video or photo? Tell your kids to respect their instincts – if they feel pressured or uncomfortable about sending someone an image or message, that’s usually a pretty good indication that they shouldn’t.
  • Talk to your kids about cyberbullying and review what they should do if they are targets or witnesses.

Most importantly, let your kids and teens know that they can come to you for help if things go wrong.

And if you are not a “texting virtuoso” yourself, ask your kids to teach you how. After all, it’s an efficient and concise way of communication that adults don’t use to the fullest.

Establishing clear guidelines and consequences and touching base regularly and talking with your kids about both appropriate use and potential pitfalls can help ensure that cell phones are a positive part of your child’s life.

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Additional Resources

Writing, Technology and Teens (Pew Internet & American Life Project)

Canadian legislation on cell phone use while driving: