Between Agency and Control: Teens and Cell Phones


With smartphone sales surpassing that of PCs and children owning their first cell phone at a younger age, the role of this mobile device in kids' life becomes increasingly important. Although there are some "kiddie" phones, the cell phone is an adult device; it may be used as a toy, but it is not one. It is, as Nina Wala observed at the IXD11 Conference, "an aspirational device" to children. It is also perhaps the most personal of mobile devices, but in the case of young people it is also a parenting tool. Ownership of a cell phone signals a certain degree of independence, but it also extends the parents ability to control and supervise the child.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project observes that "about two-thirds (64%) of parents say that they look at the contents of their child's phone, including looking at the address book, call log, text messages or pictures. Another two-thirds (62%) have taken away their teen's phone as a punishment."

Young people in the US typically receive their first cell between the ages of 12 and 13. Not quite teenagers, they start experiencing many of the demands of older kids. They have mixed expectations, from themselves, their parents and peers of still being kids but also experimenting (playing?) with more grownup behaviors. Their behavior with and around the cell phone reflects this liminal stage.

For instance, a study conducted at the Stockholm University followed the cell phone usage of kids ages 10-12. They found that at that age they still engage in spontaneous play activities and that these activities extended to the cell phone. The kids would use the cell phone in a manner that enhanced their everyday play; if they were playing hide and seek, they would call their opponents so that the ringtone would give away their location.

In the US the Pew Center describes younger kids making more use of the photo and particularly the video capabilities of the phone. They show a desire to experiment with non-verbal, non-textual means of communication; they capture and share this content more avidly. They socialize through the content they produce.

Another notable empowering side effect of owning a cell phone, is that it provides young people with a means of signaling their respect for a person or a context. In the research conducted by the Pew Center one young cell phone user commented: "It depends on where I am. In the movies they ask you to turn your phone off and I only do that if it is like a really good movie like Harry Potter or something or like if I'm at a play that I like really want to see. It's just ... it sounds weird, but it is kind of like how much I respect the thing that I'm at."

On the flip side, cell phone ownership demands a certain kind of social maturity and self-awareness that is new to tweens. Through the cell phone they test (and ideally set) boundaries. In the US, more than 4 in 5 teens with cell phones sleep with the phone on or near the bed. This speaks to the strong connection they feel with the device but also to "the perceived obligation that accompanies cell phones to always be reachable" as noted by the Pew research team. While that "perceived obligation" certainly plagues adults as well, the cell phone enters tweens' lives just as they starting to build (but usually, don't yet have) the social competencies to deal with these demands.

Finally, or perhaps initially, the cell phone is the possibility of safety, it allows young people to reach their parents and for parents to reach them. The phone is a useful security blanket, a transitional object that reassures both parents and children.

Cell phone usage in tweens is similar to that of adults, yet also radically different; further understanding of these behaviors and contexts can inform the design of user experiences fine-tuned to the particular challenges and desires of young users.

Familiarity Not the Same as Proficiency

One notion that seems to permeate the perception of all interaction between young people and technology is that of the "digital natives". It was popularized through Marc Prensky's essay in 2001, and has since taken a life of its own. This concept has come to allude to a binary reality where only the "natives" are truly in the know. This is part of a broader tendency to ascribe limitless digital prowess to young children.

This glorification of young people's capacity to learn and adapt to new technologies has often served to obscure their different degrees of proficiency and their developing ability to understand the context in which each technology is situated. While kids are particularly prone to adopting new technologies, the danger exists, as Sonia Livingstone argues, that "if we overestimate young people's skills, we may underestimate their need for support".

Social Steganography

Mobile phones insert themselves in the wider context of young people's mediated social life, one where determining the boundaries between public and private requires a whole different set of skills and tools than that of its "real world" counterpart. Researcher Danah Boyd has noted that one common strategy is that of "hiding in plain sight", inserting coded messages in public (or semi- public) texts in order to communicate with a close circle of peers, while misleading those who are unaware that a code is even present. She is calling this activity "social steganography". In Boyd's research one girl tells the story of posting a video to Facebook which would make her friends understand that she was heartbroken, while her mother interpreted that she was happy.

Although cell phones could be seen as belonging to a private sphere, given the ways in which kids' phones are supervised and shared, social steganography is used with these devices as well.

At the Center of the Mobile Experience

The Fall of the Kin

One of last year's most publicized launches (and flops) was that of the Kin, a smartphone marketed to young people and described by Microsoft as a "social phone". Considering its target market, the first surprise was its hefty minimum monthly plan of $70 , but aside from its price the Kin's own design demonstrated a lack of understanding of young people's use of mobile devices:

-It lacked an instant messaging feature (a feature that Blackberry has known how to take advantage of)
-It didn't allow for re-tweets or direct messages in its Twitter app, thwarting its ability to function as a social tool.
-It had no built in predictive text. With 50% of teens in the US sending an average of 1500 text messages a month, this drawback on its own could be enough to ruin the user experience.