Saturday, August 15, 2009

Introducing the Cell Phone License

Richard Chalfen Ph.D.
Center on Media and Child Health
Children’s Hospital Boston

The popularity of cell phones (also referred to here as mobiles) has introduced a series of tension points for parents and their children. Some of these tensions are not unlike dilemmas encountered as children grow into their teenage years and adolescence, including requests and permissions to stay out late, attend un-chaperoned parties, drink alcohol, (less so, smoke cigarettes), drive a car and the like.

We might hear such family dialogues as:
Child: Mom, when can I have my own cell phone? OR
Child: Dad: Why can’t I have my own cell phone? All my friends have one and I’m out of it.

Parent: Well, you know we want you to be safe whether you’re at school or after school and even on weekends. We might need to find you for some reason, and we want to know where you are if something goes wrong or you need help…

Child: I repeat -- when are you going to buy me a cell phone?

Kids seem to be winning this one. What tools and strategies do parents have to help regulate mobile use? There is adequate documentation that shows the number of cell phones in the world is increasing dramatically, and the age of children in the U.S. having their own mobiles is getting younger each year. In turn, parents are noticing a range of unanticipated problems linked to inappropriate use or simply over-use of mobiles by their kids. Examples include too much texting, often accompanied by morning fatigue and diminished concentration, disobeying school regulations for cell use, classroom cheating, too much distraction while being a pedestrian or driving a car, too much personal information revealed on personal internet sites, among others. And many bad habits can result in extraordinarily high service provider bills.

Granted that family circumstances vary and personal reasons may determine decisions. But what can we draw upon to ease these growing tensions and give some sense of control and satisfaction to both parents and their children? What can be suggested that provides something more than a talk about the electronic version of the birds-and-the-bees, something more concrete to present, to hold on to and talk about in familiar and recognizable terms?

I am suggesting that parents could be asking: “What should their kids know about cell phones to be treated as competent members of cyber society or be recognized as a knowledgeable participant in their own mobile telephony?” In turn, how can we promote the idea that kids should also be asking their parents about the kinds of responsibilities that accompany permission to drive a mobile along the cyber highway. The fact is that mobile media platform is here to stay; explicit models for the interface of mobiles and both interpersonal and mass communication are going to become more needed and useful.

To gain some traction in this direction, I am suggesting the development of a home-based, family administered and supported “cell phone license.“ The idea is to develop a home oriented program of training and education that emphasizes a modern version of “communicative competency” that befits participation and individual responsibility as we witness advances in modern telephony. Concern is with gaining a competency for internet safety, for sending (and receiving) speech, text, and images, which means the safe participation and competent management of access to different modes of mobile use. Thus we must include text messaging, taking-sending-receiving audio-visual materials (photographs and videos), creating personal blogs and vlogs, contributing to information sharing sites such as Facebook,, My Space and Flickr as well as games and, indeed, gaming sites.

But how can we conceptualize such a licensing process and its results?

The proposed program will include examples of both pro-social and anti-social mobile use and information on security and medical applications (emergency numbers and diagnostic techniques), internet access as an information resource, proposed classroom learning applications as well as school regulations and prohibitions about in-school cheating, cyberbullying and sexting (including the retention of “x-rated” photographs on mobile hard drives) among others.

In short we feel the need to develop the mobile counterpart of an automobile driver’s license as a kind of license to ‘drive’ a cell phone along cyberspace highways. But this can ONLY happen after young people are given a ‘test’ for competency and required skills with a set of real-life examples and hypothetical danger points accompanied by problematic unethical or illegal results that are already on the record. The license would be granted by parents to their kids as new adopters of mobiles

Metaphors of a driver’s license can be invoked and extended to knowing ‘the rules of the road’ to promote cooperation, to avert accidents and legal troubles, law suits and associated penalty fees (all of which have counterparts in cases of sexting and cyberbullying). We can also extend the metaphor into such literal features as a Driver’s Manual accompanied by a written/spoken examination, a road test, a “learner’s permit” for a period of parental supervision and a monitoring of mobile use. In turn, violations can result in partial or total suspension or revocation of license when sufficient violations have occurred. Under most cases, the state (read: parents) will pay for their children’s phone service; but another possibility is a change in payment pattern as when kids become liable/responsible for the monthly phone bill.

I am suggesting that parents would have a tool to address intra-familial strains about when to allow their kids to have and use their own cell phones. Likewise kids have a means of proving to their parents a sense of skill and competence. Other models of control are applicable to other institutional pressures. School personnel would also have a tool to help regulate mobile misuse during school hours. Problems currently include class disturbances, classroom cheating, evidence of harassment e.g. bullying-via-mobiles, illegitimate picture taking or showing e.g. acts of sexting, among others. When a local school or a school board officially issues a ban on the appearance or use of cell phones during hours, school principals could ask both students and their parents if they had passed the license test. If the answer is NO, child and parents would find themselves in weak or even indefensible positions. New responsibilities and accountabilities are thus put in place.

I am suggesting that parents could use this licensing process as both an opportunity for a series of teachable moments and as a means of control, as a way to stress responsibility, to give their kids a sense that other people are involved and possibly at risk if a mobile is misused, as when a car driver becomes careless and irresponsible on the road. There is always the likelihood of unanticipated collateral damage when car accidents occur; the same can be said of mobile misuse when recipients of texts or “sexts” can also be in legal trouble.

In addition, children might feel rewarded for passing the proposed licensing process, about being certified as a well-informed, competent ‘drivers’, feeling a sense of achievement and just maybe, feeling wiser for their training and grateful for knowing their parents care so much about their safely and well being. But in order for this program to be successful, parents must take responsibility for updating their own knowledge of contemporary internet practices. I have suggested that the Center on Media and Child Health at Children’s Hospital develop Primers for distribution to parents to help administer the home-based license. But parental learning may, in fact, require that Mom and Dad consult their own children for information and even instruction.

Parents and kids find themselves at an awkward moment as they find little agreement across the country in several relevant contexts. For instance, school districts differ in their regulations of mobile use on school grounds or during school hours. While some schools seek stronger restrictions on cell use (even elimination), others are working to incorporated cell use into formal classroom learning. While suggestions for incorporating internet safety information in school-based sex education classes, and into driver education, more needs to be done at home. My general sense is there is a lot to be gained by putting this license-granting practice into place and operation.

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