Cell Phones as the New Necessity

Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 10:16AM

My kids are always bugging me.  They can never reach me on my cell phone because it is either uncharged, misplaced, muted, or otherwise misappropriated.  Don’t get me wrong–I like having the phone for “just in case”.  You know, just in case I get a flat tire, just in case I get lost, or just in case I forget to cook dinner.  One thing I have realized in the past few months, however, is that my approach to the cell phone is stone ageish.  The technology might be the same, but the uses have changed–changed as quickly as a 17-year old can text a dear john letter –and believe me–that’s fast!

The change highlights an interesting characteristic of technology.  As users get used to the technology and integrate it into their lives, they begin to use it to meet different needs.  As that happens, the technology moves from becoming a cool little thing to becoming something that is essential to modern life.  I learned this one the hard way. I made the mistake the other day in class of asking students to give up their cells for one week.  I was 2 steps from running out of the room being chased by an uncontrollable mob.  NO WAY could they give up their phones!

The reason I share this observation is to encourage parents (like me) to re-think the new “place” of the cell phone–both the good and the bad–as we try to help our kids use the technology wisely.  The first thing to remember is that it’s not just for emergencies or calling home when a pick up from school is needed.  It is a social appendage. It keeps the connections jumping and the identity sharp.  The second thing to keep in mind is that kids use the phone to fill in the silence.  When is the last time you saw an older teen just hanging around, walking, or sitting, without a phone to their ear?  They feel uncomfortable with down time–with alone time. Thinking and contemplation may be becoming de-valued. Silence becomes an awkward obstacle instead of an opportunity to take in the people and surroundings of a specific time and place.

I’m not sure what the implications are for parents.  Does this mean we should give our kids the phones they so desperately say they need? Who knows.  What I do think, however, is that we should engage our kids in conversations about how and why they use their phones–what are they giving up when they flip open that phone?  what are they really missing by being disconnected from their friends for a while? what could they gain by spending time alone, just watching things in their environment?  What real-life things have passed them by as they connect to someone in a different place? Why is silence so scary?

Maybe those are questions that are too big for teenagers to contemplate–especially when the cell phone is so much brighter.  But maybe we need to ask ourselves the same questions.   Mobile technology is truly changing how we do things.  The further we go with these devices, the more of a necessity they will become.  At some point, however, it is important to step out of the stream and think about what we gain and what we lose every time we dial up.

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