Coming of Age

By Published on .

High school graduations must follow a script: A decent marching band plays the national anthem, administrators give uninspired speeches and class leaders offer cliché-riddled send-offs to their be-tasseled peers. For instance, at a graduation in Connecticut this past spring, the class president spoke competently about “moving into the next stage of life,� and how “the moments we shared together will last forever.� Then, as she recited a litany of activities that had filled their days for four years — from the number of classes they had taken to the seconds spent together in the gym — her list came to a rather odd item: “The countless text messages back and forth in class,� she read. Within the daily grind of high schoolers' lives, mobile technology had seemingly ensconced itself as a virtual necessity. The days of passing notes from desk to desk have obviously gone by the wayside, replaced with SMS messaging by cell phone.

Mobile phones have steadily become a technology that fewer and fewer people can do without. This may be especially true for the younger set. “They're texting at school under the radar screen of their teachers. It's a device that connects them very socially to their friends and keeps them very private from the adults that rule their world,� explains Joanne McKinney, a partner and account director at North Castle Partners, youth marketing experts based in Stamford, Conn. North Castle, along with mobile marketing solutions provider Enpocket, recently launched the Mobile Youth IQ which aims to help the marketplace improve its reach to teen mobile users.

According to youthKnowhow, a London-based company that specializes in understanding youth behavior and applying this to develop better product and marketing strategies for wireless and new media companies, about 25.7 million kids in the U.S. between the ages of 5 and 19 are cell phone users. That's 40 percent of the population in that age range. As you might imagine, the balance tilts toward older kids. About 82 percent of 15- to 19-year-olds own mobile phones, versus 35 percent of 10- to 14-year-olds, and just 1 percent of 5- to 9-year-olds. By 2006, though, youthKnowhow projects that mobile penetration will reach 52 percent of the 5- to 19-year-old population. Add 20- to 24-year-olds to this mix and the yearly cell phone spend for 2006 could reach $16.7 billion among the under-24 demographic.

“The cell phone now competes with the wallet as the item you'd be most freaked out about leaving the house without,� says Howard Handler, chief marketing officer for Virgin Mobile USA, a wireless carrier expressly aimed at the youth market. For Generation Y, the cell phone has become a defining technology, practically as important as the Internet. Clearly, today's kids have embraced the wireless world. This is a generation strongly attached to its mobile phones, and the technology is changing youth culture and social interaction. Whereas the mobile phone serves adults as a communication tool, for young people it has become a new means of expression and identity. “I believe in the next few years the phone and the service will be akin to the clothes that you wear and the car that you drive,� predicts Handler. “It's going to be a complete reflection of who you are and what you're all about.�

That reflection is already making a pretty penny for businesses in the mobile content market. Ringtone sales in the U.S. are expected to reach $146 million in 2004, according to In-Stat/MDR, and by 2007, the Yankee Group forecasts $1 billion in sales of this feature. And corporations from wireless providers to record companies are hoping to cash in on the mobile data market (see related story “Young, Mobile, Def� on page 23).

Among 5,500 mobile users surveyed by the Yankee Group, of the 80 percent of teens who have text messaging capabilities on their cell phone, 69 percent report sending or receiving at least a message a week. Of the 69 percent that text, almost 1 in 5 reports sending over 21 messages a week. “If we look at what you can do with your phone beyond voice, the most ubiquitous feature on a phone is text. If we look at teens and the youth market in general who have embraced IM on the PC, text is a natural,� says Yankee Group senior analyst Linda Barrabee.

Wyndham Lewis, director of youthKnowhow, points to the American Idol TV show as a way to illustrate the popularity of text messaging in the U.S. “In the American elections in November 2002, 18- to 24-year-olds cast 8.6 million votes, compared with 16 million votes for American Idol.� What's more, Lewis explains that even though young people could easily have voted for free using a land line, the majority chose to place their vote by text message. This is not entirely surprising, as more and more of America's youth are choosing to make their mobile phone their main voice communication medium. “Increasingly, people are just giving out their mobile numbers,� says Lewis. This practice could have a huge impact on the telecommunications industry in the years to come.

“For people 5 years old and under, this whole wireless thing will be meaningless because they'll just grow up with them,� Lewis says. “It will just be a phone, it won't be a mobile phone or a cell phone.� With that said, what happens when it's time for these young people to move into their own house or apartment and they need to make the decision of whether or not they need a land line? Overall, 6 percent of Americans currently use their cell phone as their only phone line reports the Yankee Group. That number skews heavily toward young adults, with 14 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds having already cut the cord.

“The decision to cut the cord is equally split between cost saving and lifestyle issues: 35 percent said cost while 32 percent said they don't need one because they're hardly ever at home,� says Barrabee. What's more, an additional 18 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds expect to cut the cord in the next five years. One of the issues associated with this trend is how it will affect relationships among families.

Historically, the home telephone has been something that signifies a relationship; it is a number shared among a group of people. “The land line for voice purposes is seen as the communal phone. A grandparent calls the house and doesn't care who in the family they get,� says Mark Page, vice president of management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, which along with Cambridge University released the Mobinet Index 2004, which examines mobile technology trends around the world. “No one has come up with a communal mobile phone yet.� So, young people today are able to create their own identity completely outside the control of their families.

“One of the core teen experiences is the process of finding your own identity and separating from parents and learning about your individuality. One of the things that the cell phone can do in such an amazing way is promote that spirit of independence and individuality. It's really not monitored at all by parents,� says McKinney. “Parents got smart and moved PCs out of the bedroom and into the kitchen to keep kids off the Internet in dangerous ways and to keep them from IMing all night long. Now, kids have their cell phones and they're doing the same things on them.�

Comparing computer instant messaging (IM) and text messaging, Americans have adopted IM to a larger extent than SMS messaging up to this point. In a recent America Online survey, 90 percent of 13- to 21-year-olds said they used IM. In many ways, the two communication mediums vie with each other for young people's fingers. “What you're seeing in the U.S. is that IM is occupying the same social space that text messaging on mobile does in a Japanese and European context. The way American kids use IM is quite similar,� explains Mizuko Ito, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California and Keio University in Japan who has done extensive research on the effect of mobile technology on culture. In those other parts of the world, young people with their own computers and Internet access are far less prevalent. Ito is quick to draw parallels between those parts of the world and lower-class America, where computers with Internet access are not as common. Among “a huge portion of the population, the mobile phone is going to be a more convenient and lower cost way of accessing the Internet,� Ito says.

However, while the two mediums may compete for finger- and mindshare, they do tend to exist in different realms. Not many computers fit in a pant pocket. “The other factor that's different from IM, that's appealing about the mobile phone, is that it's with you all the time. The default with mobile phones is you're connected. It's a different kind of more pervasive social connectivity,� continues Ito. Text is an especially popular medium among young couples who like to stay connected, Ito has found.

For a group prone to bouts of raging hormones, text messages offer an alternative and “safer� way to communicate. “You can be more flirtatious. You can say things in a text dialogue that you wouldn't normally say face to face or in a voice call,� says Rob Lawson, co-founder of Enpocket. Text communication can help teens explore different sides of their personalities by experimenting with inter-gender communications, minus the social consequences associated with face-to-face encounters.

While there are positive effects on youth development, there are perceived dangers associated with constant connectivity and the lack of parental monitoring. “Suddenly, there's going to be a big bandwagon of text bullying. There are going to be issues when the mobile Internet comes online, because they're taking communication outside of the home for the first time,� Lewis says. By taking this powerful piece of technology out of the home, teens have opened up a whole new social world, even further separated from their nuclear families.

“There's a whole separation between your social life and your family's knowledge of that life. There's so much that goes on that's unmonitored. When we were young, a friend called your home phone and your parents knew who your friends were,� says McKinney. “Our groups report, because they never give away their home phone number and their friends are only calling them on their mobile phone, their parents never really know who they're hanging out with.� Or where they're hanging out for that matter.

“When caller ID first came out kids hated it. Because then the parent would say, ‘You call me when you get there,’ and they could see on the caller ID whether they were really over at Johnny's house. Now with cell phones they don't know. You hope kids are where they tell you they are,� says Jack Church, vice president of marketing for Teen Arrive Alive. The company has developed software that works with Nextel phones enabled with Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology to help parents keep track of their teens. Teen Arrive Alive even allows parents to see roughly how fast their teen is driving in real time. While Church is quick to point out that when you first turn on the phone a message comes up saying “this phone may be tracking you,� the program still raises questions about privacy. Although the goal for the majority of parents is undoubtedly to keep their teens safe, does technology like this work against the positive benefits of the freedom associated with young people having a mobile phone?

In response to this, Church points out the way cell phones speed up and change planning and communication among teens. “In these days with cell phones, if there's a party, it's spread within five minutes and everybody knows about it. Suddenly the kids get a call that, ‘We're all going to so and so's, his parents are gone.’ That's when the peer pressure comes in, they all want to fit in, and that's why they make some of the poor choices they do,� Church says. This issue of peer pressure and teen's desire to fit in, is of course nothing new. For generations, teenagers have struggled to find their identity in a sea of confusion. Mobile technology is giving these teens a new tool to aid them in their struggle. It's giving them a chance to have more freedom and to communicate in a way that was once not a possibility until they moved away from home. There's no denying the fact that children are acting more like adults in their social interactions at a younger age than ever before, but in a world that puts speed at such a premium, who could expect anything less?

In this article: