TCS Daily

Telephonic Youth

By Dominic Standish - September 9, 2003 12:00 AM

A survey of Italian children between the ages of nine and ten found that, incredibly, 56 percent owned cell phones. This was the finding of a study published on 8 July 2003, coordinated by Francesco Pira, a lecturer at the University of Trieste.


Ownership is even more prevalent among teenagers attending the equivalent of upper high school, according to research presented on 24 May 2003 by Eurisko on behalf of the Giovani-Editori watchdog association. Some 90 percent owned a cell phone, up from 87 percent in 2001.


Widespread ownership of cell phones among Italian children mirrors that of the adult population. There are 53 million mobile phones and 58 million inhabitants in Italy. The International Telecommunication Union has assessed the so-called "penetration" rate in Italy at 93 percent, compared with 49 percent in the United States and 62 percent in Japan.


A Deutsche Bank AG report published last year estimated that this 93 percent penetration rate translates into 70 percent of the population owning a cell phone. Many people have contracts with more than one service provider. Italy has now surpassed Finland and Sweden in the number of cell phones per capita.


What explains the popularity of mobile phones in Italy? For one thing, Latin cultures tend to be highly verbal: why send a text message or email when you can say it? In addition, families are still relatively close and tend to talk to each other often and a lot.


But there's something else: Italy also got the technology right. From the outset, the prepaid phone card format was immediately attractive to the Italian mass market: no monthly fees, no contract and no credit card, which many Italians still regard with suspicion. These conditions are obviously also attractive for cell phone use by children with the added bonus for parents that spending can be restrained by the provision of a prepaid card (in theory!).


The greatest concentration of Italian cell phone users is in the 18-to-34-year-old age group. But there seems to be particular concern about use by children. Pira's study discovered that of those children with cell phones:

  • 68 percent never turned their phones off
  • 80 percent kept them on when in church
  • 86 percent kept them on during school classes

There has been a great deal of debate about the health risks of cell phone use in relation to children and adults, especially from radiation. But Signor Pira's criticisms are unusual because they focus on social drawbacks, such as having cell phones turned on at inappropriate times. "Children are using their mobiles early, badly and too much," believes Pira. "This is true even by comparison with other European countries, where the use of cell phones seems to be more selective."

Pira seems concerned with the social consequences of child cell phone use in church and school. Of course, such use of cell phones by children is likely to be disturbing. But it is the responsibility of adults to control this, whether it is a priest, teacher or parents.

Indeed, the issue of parental control is central to the debate about kids and cell phones. But the irony is that adults often fail to control cell phone use by kids, while expecting cell phones to extend parental control over children.

This is why most cell phones are given to children by their parents as presents. In reality, kids up to mischief are unlikely to answer a call from a parent. If they do answer, how probable is it that they will tell the parent what they are doing with any accuracy? Parents who think calling children on cell phones can help them find out when they will be home need to realize that this represents the erosion of parental authority, not its assertion.

As the eminent sociologist Frank Furedi has outlined in his book Paranoid Parenting (2002), too often we hinder the ability of children to develop their independence by constantly supervising their activities. Whether children are at the playground or the disco, the last thing they need is a parent phoning them to check on what they are up to. If there is a negative social consequence of children having cell phones, it is reduced child autonomy.

However, let's not forget that there are many advantages of kids being able to talk with family members and others. Who can seriously object to a child calling a grandparent from the beach to tell them what a great time they are having or even to send them a digital photo?

So it is important that we don't blame the technology. It is our culture of anxiety about children that means cell phones have become another control mechanism. By all means, give your child a cell phone. But don't turn it into an extended umbilical cord.


TCS Daily Archives