Give Mobile Phones to Tweens, Then Let Them Roam

It's no wonder good dinner conversation with teens is so rare.  photo: Flickr user Willivolt

When my teenage nieces and nephews come to my house and text their friends at the dinner table, I feel like whacking them over the head with a tennis racket. I try to talk to them. They have no idea what I’m doing, and could care less.

I call their behavior the “zombie effect” of mobile phones. Mobile phone users are totally absorbed in a world apart from the real, physical world that the rest of us are inhabiting with them. This is because of the phenomenon of “location independence,” in which the user’s experience with the phone is completely independent of, even ignorant of, the place in which it’s being used.

Despite this rude pattern of mobile phone usage, I believe that parents should give mobile phones to tweens and embrace their use enthusiastically. Of course, from the moment we give them their mobile phones, we need to lay out clear rules for when and how they should be used. But first, why am I so in favor of getting cell phones into the hands of tweens?
As Don Tapscott writes in Grown Up Digital, “technology is like air” to tweens and teens. In other words, technology is fundamental to their way of life, their very existence. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports that 75% of children ages 12 – 17 own mobile phones, and the number is increasing rapidly. Furthermore, the average teen uses his or her mobile phone intensively, sending 50 text messages per day. So, a parent who denies a teen a mobile phone will seriously harm the teen’s social life. Once that happens, the parent-teen relationship will deteriorate as well.

This explains why we should give our kids mobile phones when all the other kids get them. But I argue here that we should give them mobile phones early (i.e. before the teen years, in the “tween” years) and enthusiastically. Why?

Mobile phones offer some strong benefits for tweens and teens to counteract the zombie effect. First, giving kids mobile phones enables parents to “loosen the leash,” giving their children more freedom in the physical world. In fact, Pew’s Networked Families report shows that mobile phones strengthen kids’ relationships with their parents because it enables them to communicate much more often during the day.

Of course, nervous parents can and often do overuse this “electronic tether” connection with their kids, but I believe that any extra amount of physical freedom that a mobile phone affords a child is a good thing. To date, most children are getting their first mobile phone in the late tween to early teen years (12 – 14), when they get more independence anyway, so one could argue that their getting a mobile phone does not result in a great deal more independence. My hope is that a large number of parents will get younger children (8 – 11) their first mobile phones, and that the promise of an electronic tether will enable these parents to grant their children more independence.

The second benefit is very small today, but could potentially make a huge positive impact on the lives of children in the next three to five years. Recall that the zombie effect is a consequence of mobile phones’ location independence. All major uses of mobile phones today – phone conversations, texting, email, and web browsing – occur exactly the same way from anywhere, provided a strong enough mobile signal is present.

Mobile applications based on GPS technology flip the zombie effect upside down because they’re location dependent. “GPS” stands for Global Positioning System. A GPS chip inside a mobile phone detects signals from GPS satellites in space so that the chip can determine the phone’s exact (i.e. within about 20 feet) latitude and longitude. The phone then retrieves detailed map data to place your location in the context of roads, bodies of water, buildings, and even other mobile phones.

So, users of location-based applications, unlike the teen zombies at the dinner table, are extremely aware of their immediate surroundings, including the people around them. Conversely, anything that’s more than a walk away becomes irrelevant. A good location-based game will force a user to learn more about a place in an hour than most people who live there. It might also force the user to strike up many face-to-face conversations with people in that place.

Today, these location-based applications are not widely used by kids. However, location-based social applications like Foursquare, in which users “check in” at retail establishments, are among the fastest growing applications on the iPhone. I believe that Foursquare is the tip of the iceberg for location-based applications, and that games will eventually surpass social applications by a wide margin because they’re so much more entertaining.

Only “smartphones” like the iPhone, Droid, and Blackberry have GPS chips. Over the next three to five years, the percentage of mobile phones with GPS chips will surpass 50%, and the first huge hit location-based game will emerge. Once that happens, these games will become a mass market phenomenon, and we’ll start to see tweens and teens running around in our neighborhoods with mobile phones in hand, exploring fine details most people never notice. They’ll strike up short conversations with you and other neighbors as they try to unlock clues to win their games, meanwhile gaining a lot of real world skills and knowledge.

In summary, here are my recommendations for introducing mobile phones to your children:

  1. Buy early (8 – 11 years old).
  2. Buy a GPS-enabled phone.
  3. Do whatever it takes (e.g. frequent check-ins) to let your kids roam more freely.
  4. Prohibit use in certain circumstances (e.g. dinner, school) to avoid the zombie effect.
  5. Get some location-based games for your kids and play with them.
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One Response to Give Mobile Phones to Tweens, Then Let Them Roam

  1. barbiegirl says:

    i want my mobile phone!!!!!!!!!!