Cell-phone family

Trends: Teen-agers find new freedom in what their parents think are safety nets.

Family Matters

January 13, 2002|By Kathy Boccella | Kathy Boccella,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Not since her children were toddlers has Sandy Kauffman of Philadelphia had such a direct means of keeping tabs on their whereabouts.

When her 16-year-old son drove to an Eagles game for the first time, she knew exactly what time to expect him home. And when her 20-year-old son went to a forbidden concert in Washington, she knew about that, too.

She simply dialed his cell phone.

"They always carry them with them. We called, and he answered. He was busted," said Kauffman.

It's no secret that parents love cell phones and are willing to shell out an average of $120 per phone and $56 in monthly fees to help keep track of their increasingly mobile offspring.

"It gives parents a confidence level we didn't have before," said Kauffman, who bought phones for both her sons.

To parents, they are electronic safety nets, but teen-agers see them as instruments of liberation. The result is a new balance in the perennial struggle between parents' desire to know what their children are up to and teen-agers' desire to escape their parents' prying eyes.

It looks as if the teens are winning.

New research suggests cell phones may actually drive teen-agers farther from home and give parents less control of their activities and their friends.

James Katz, a professor of communications at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., who has studied teen-agers' cell-phone use for a decade, said the phones give parents and children a false sense of security. Parents are more willing to let their teens, or even preteens, go to concerts or stay out late, believing they are safe because they have phones.

"They'll say, 'I'll call you at 9 to make sure you're not bodysurfing the crowd,' " said Katz, author of Perpetual Contact, due out next month, which addresses teens and cell phones.

But instead of being safer, with cell phones "teens are able to go further afield and meet new people who their parents may not have wanted them to meet," he said.

Necessity of modern life

Of the nation's 31.6 million teens, 33 percent already own cell phones, a number that's rapidly growing, according to Teen-age Research Unlimited, a market-research firm in Northbrook, Ill.

With teen-age life increasingly nomadic and spontaneous, a cell phone is considered as much a necessity as a car and spending money.

Gathering at a burger joint or hanging at a friend's house has given way to migratory nights spent roaming from house to restaurant to movie to ... wherever. And a phone gives a teen-ager access to friends -- the importance of which cannot be overstated -- while on the go.

It makes it easier to stay in touch with friends from camp, said Brett Kauffman, 16. It also broadened his social circle. "If I'm in the area, I'll call them up and we'll get together. They bring friends, and now they're my friends, too," he said.

For Benjamin Magaziner, 17, it takes up to 20 calls just to organize a night out with friends from the area.

"We're always moving around," he said. "I don't know where we go -- we go nowhere."

But they can't get there without their phones.

"I'll be driving around with my friend, Nate, and the phone will ring and it will be some friends -- they're at a restaurant, so we go there," he explained. "Then some other friends call and say, 'Come on over,' so we'll go there. We never stay at one place."

His parents bought him and his two sisters cell phones about a year ago so they could keep in touch. He said he's pretty good about telling his mother where he's going and with whom.

But other teens have gone to extreme lengths to keep their parents from intruding into their social lives.

Kori Talbott, 17, a freshman at Cabrini College near Philadelphia, said that when she lived at home in Annapolis, she would let her phone ring or turn it off if she knew her parents were calling.

That's because she sometimes told them she was going to a friend's house when actually they were going to, say, a party.

"They thought they knew where I was, but they didn't," she said.

Other teens say they have told white lies about batteries running out.

"It's the modern-day equivalent of running out of gas on a date," said researcher Katz.

Back when teens had to use the family phone to call friends, "parents were the gatekeepers. If you were stuck in the hallway or kitchen talking on the phone, it was not possible to disguise very well what was going on," he said.

Now, "they can go off and have their own private conversations with strangers," he said.

Parents feel secure

Still, many parents feel more secure having an electronic tether to their teens.

Pam Magaziner, a nurse at St. Christopher's Hospital in Philadelphia, said she feels better knowing she can call her children after school or when they're home alone.

"I call a lot just to ask, 'Are you OK?' " she said.

With the older ones, she acknowledged, "it's more like you're checking up on them."

And when they don't answer, it raises her anxiety level a notch or two.

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