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The wired generation

Caramie Schnell
Dominique Taylor/ Illustration by Amanda SwansonBrittany Fanning, 7, makes a call from the swing.
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If Mariah Davis had her way, she’d be an “iKid,” the designation given to today’s tech-savvy kids sporting the newest iPods and cell phones.

Ever since Davis, a freckle-faced, curly-haired 8-year-old spotted an advertisement on a fruit-snack box at the grocery store, she’s been pining for a Firefly – the teensy turquoise cell phone with five speed-dial buttons designed for kids 5 – 12. That’s right, a cell phone designed and marketed specifically for your 5-year-old.

Why does Mariah want a cell phone? Well the first reason is because her best friend, who is 10, has one. Second, she wants to play the games that come on them – “My Aunt Stacy has fun games on hers,” she tells me, a sly grin spreading across her face.

Kids these days are wired, and it’s not from too many pixie sticks. Fifteen minutes before volleyball game time at Berry Creek Middle School in Edwards provides a clear picture: Eight eighth-grade girls scrunch together around a maroon table outside the school. Three phones were already clutched in hands or lying on the table; two girls shared a pair of headphones attached to a white iPod Nano. When the topic of cell phones comes up, more cell phones quickly appear and the girls without phones chorus – “Mine’s at home.”

An informal survey reveals some stats: the girls guess 80 percent of the kids who attend Berry Creek have cell phones. Less students have iPods, but they’re very popular as well. Most of the girls have had a cell phone for two years – since they were in the sixth grade. Motorola’s Sliver and Razr’s are the most popular phones. And, finally, though devices like iPods and cell phones are not allowed in class, they still bring them, hide them and use them.

“We text message our friends. We just put it on vibrate,” said Alma Enamorado, 13.

What happens if the phone rings in class, or if they’re caught text messaging a friend?

“The teacher takes it to the office,” she said. “If it’s the first time, they give you a warning and give it back. Second time, parents have to come and pick it up.”

Parents are usually left with the bill. “We download a lot of music and the bill is very high. My parents get mad.”

Enamorado’s last cell phone bill was $209. “My dad says, ‘Don’t do that again. Next time, I’ll take it away.'”

Out of the gaggle of girls (along with a few curious boys) sitting and surrounding the table, only one girl is cell-phone free. Or she’s the only one owning up to her status. Amelia Rodriguez, 13, said that sometimes she feels left out but that she doesn’t have a choice. “My parents say, ‘You want a cell phone, you pay for it.'”

As a seventh-grade teacher at Gypsum Middle School, James Carullo sees plenty of students with the usual suspects – iPods and cell phones. He said that for many of the kids, such technology serves as a status symbol.

“It’s straight out an image thing to have that ‘bling,’ as they call it,” he said. “Though some kids want it for the function of it, to call their parents after school for a ride … Many of the snowboarder, skateboarder types want to have their tunes with them, they have them stashed in their pocket.”

Just because kids have grown-up toys doesn’t make them ready for them, Carullo said. The last day of school this past spring one student brought his new video iPod to school.

“He jumped in the pool and forgot he had it in his pocket,” he said. “The technology hasn’t made them any more self-sufficient. At that age they’re probably not responsible enough to handle it – that’s an expensive piece of equipment.”

The wired trend isn’t just relegated to middle and high school students. More and more elementary school children are wired as well. About 16 million U.S. teens and younger kids have cell phones, according to the international market research company based in the U.K., called GFK’s NOP World Technology. With the adult and teen market largely saturated, cell providers and companies are eyeing the younger demographic.

Mattel, the maker of Barbie and her dream house, is just one of many companies vying to connect with the preteen and younger market. The company licensed its “My Scene” brand name (a doll collection aimed at 8-to 12-year-old girls) to Single Touch Interactive and, starting in April ’05, launched a full-service cell phone for kids. Forget allowance, give your kids minutes, the press release from Single Touch Interactive seems to promote:

“(Parents) can also stay in control of phone usage by tying your child’s good behavior to added minutes via the Reward Board. Just go online, set a list of chores, which can include making the bed, finishing homework or not arguing with your brother or sister, and place stars on the completed tasks. At the end of the week or month, parents can buy extra minutes according to the child’s list of completed tasks.”

When Eagle resident Sally Holderness bought school supplies for her youngest child Alyssa, 5, a kindergartner this year, she included a cell phone alongside the packages of crayons, pads of construction paper and boxes of tissue. Alyssa didn’t beg for it, though, and it’s not a Firefly either; it’s a Sprint phone that features parental controls. Sally has programmed the phone so that Alyssa can only dial four numbers – home, mom’s cell phone, brother’s cell phone and 911; likewise, only certain numbers can call the phone.

“Everybody’s like what, are you crazy?” Holderness said. “But I don’t think you can be overly cautious anymore.”

There is no district-wide policy regarding iPods and cell phones for Eagle County School District, according to spokewoman Melinda Gladitsch. Each individual principal gets to make their own rules, which usually is some version of kids are allowed to have them so long as they don’t interrupt class time or become a distraction, she said.

As far as school policy at Alyssa’s school, Holderness said she’s not really sure, adding that she didn’t check because the phone is strictly for emergencies. Alyssa knows she must keep the phone in her backpack and that it’s not a toy. And though Alyssa has only had the phone for a month or so, the lecture seems to be working – there hasn’t been any slip-ups, no clandestine calls from the playground. The only time the little girl has used the phone is to practice, Holderness said, so the extra $10 a month the phone costs Holderness pays for peace-of-mind, rather than actual cell time for Alyssa. That’s more than worth the money, she said.

Not everyone is psyched about the advent of kid-specific cell phones and the new marketing tactics. Several child advocacy groups asked Congress to investigate the marketing of mobile phones to children, claiming concerns about kid’s safety, privacy, education and health. Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group dedicated to “protecting communities from commercialism” said on its website “the targeting of young children as the next growth market for the telecom industry is one of the worst ideas to appear in the American economy in a long time. Does anyone really believe that kids today lack sufficient distractions for their school work, that there are insufficient disruptions in the home, and that child predators and advertisers lack sufficient means of access to kids?”

It’s not just the younger students, either. Doctor Lucy Troop, a psychology professor at Colorado State University, has to remind her college students almost daily to remove the headphones “firmly clamped to their ears” and to refrain from talking or using their cell phone to text message during class. The technology advances also hit a little closer to home: her 9-year-old twin girls just received Firefly cell phones as a gift from their aunt, and she plans on buying them iPods for Christmas.

“I’m amazed by how much my girls know,” Troop said. “Part of what we’re seeing is exposure – there have been tech-savvy people around for a long time, but as the tools we have in the household change, we have much more exposure to it.”

Doctor Troop said she cannot live without her computer or e-mail, which she said she checks every five minutes. She also instant-messages and text-messages people and takes her cell phone with her wherever she goes. Troop hails from Great Britain, and she said that many Europeans almost exclusively communicate using text and instant messaging. “That’s the direction things are moving – kids can text quicker than they can speak,” she said.

Assistant CSU sociology professor, Dr. Jeni Cross agrees that the popularity of technology such as text messaging has grown tremendously in the past few years, citing the students from the recent shooting in Bailey using text messages to keep in contact with their parents during the standoff. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, she said.

“I’ve had people in classes that instant-message their kids from downstairs,” Cross said. “Parents, if they know how to interact and use the lingo, can interact with their kids, check on them, using the technology – ‘How are you? Are you doing your homework?'”

Technology, and all its advances, is just a part of how people live their lives now, Troop said.

“It’s universal that if you’re a fifth or sixth grader, you’re going to have a cell phone, she said. “Kids that age are expected to type 25 words per minute now.

New mediums for gathering information and communicating are nothing new, Troop reminds.

“People used to burn books and thought they were evil because they distributed information,” Troop said. “My fathers’ generation, they think it’s awful kids don’t read books any more, but it’s just a new form of media we should really not be too scared of. I don’t necessarily think it’s going to turn all the kids into square-eyed crazy people.”

The one thing that does worry Troop is the radio frequencies from the cell phone, which is why she discourages her children from using the phone for anything but security purposes. She also warns against children who tend to be a little antisocial already using technology to further distance themselves. But generally, she thinks kids these days are pretty well adjusted.

“I think its adults that don’t adjust to tech-savvy kids,” she said. “I think a balance is good, as a parent you have to balance how much access you give your kids to these things, but denying them totally and saying it’s bad is silly. It’s not, it’s a good thing.”

Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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