Teenagers and Cellphones – Standard Equipment for Italian Adolescents

David Pogue, technology writer for the New York Times, mentioned in his weekly column (some time ago) some ways in which Europe is technologically ahead of the US. We’re certainly far ahead in the use of SMS (short message service), by which you can use your cellphone to send text messages to someone else’s cellphone. I read elsewhere that SMS recently became available in the US, but not many people are using it. The problem, I believe, is that US cellphone companies have not yet captured the attention of the teenage market.

Italy has one of the world’s highest ratios of cellphones to people. They spread years ago from well-heeled to ordinary folk, with the introduction of pay-as-you-go plans: you buy a phone and “recharge” it with calling time whenever you need or can afford to, with no credit check or monthly fee. This has been a boon to people who cannot qualify for or afford a land-line phone, and to parents of teenagers: give the kid a set phone allowance each month, and when it runs out, they either do without or pay their own way.

Still, the cost per minute of talk is fairly high, and varies wildly depending on whether you’re calling a phone in the same network, a different network, or a land-line. SMS cost only 10 to 12 cents per message, and are less intrusive than calls; the default signal for an incoming message is a single beep. Or you can set your phone to silent mode, and keep an unobtrusive eye on it. Some kids get away with using SMS to pass notes in class.

A familiar cliché about teenagers is that, as soon as they come home from school, they are on the phone for hours, much to the frustration of anyone else in the family who needs to use it. But the cliché no longer matches the reality. In the US, kids come home from school and immediately get online with their computers, to text chat with the friends they just saw at school. In Italy, they come home and start tapping out SMS. With SMS, you’re more likely to reach everyone you want to talk to, as there are far more cellphones than computers with Internet connections in Italy. Plus, with a cellphone you can reach your friends no matter where you or they are – neither party is tied to a desk.

Being able to communicate textually instead of orally is great for adolescent boys, who tend to be tongue-tied in comparison with – and especially when speaking to! – their female peers. The same boy who blushes and stammers when confronted with a real live girl, sends wildly romantic SMS. At the beginning of the school year, my daughter was baffled by a boy who would spend hours in SMS conversation, but was too shy to speak with her in person. Later she was courted by a boy who doesn’t yet own a cellphone, which she considered an advantage as he was forced to actually speak to her.

Like many adults, I initially didn’t use SMS much, but am finding it increasingly useful. If I need to communicate a change of plans to my daughter while she’s in school, I can send a message. She’s got the phone set to “Silent” so it won’t disrupt classes, but I know she checks it during breaks.

School rules have evolved rapidly to cope with changing mores. At first many schools banned cellphones altogether. Some have or had rules that they must be turned off completely during school hours – rules which were routinely flouted, as so many rules are in Italy. I guess that by now most schools have given up.

There are downsides to being constantly in touch. I’ve seen my daughter (and others) sit in a roomful of friends, tapping away on her phone. I don’t get that: why not enjoy the friends you’re with, and catch up with the others later? Adults aren’t much better; during breaks in business meetings, everyones dive for their phones, missing that potentially very valuable informal time with their colleagues.

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