Kids and mobile phones: waiting for the surveillance shoe to drop

The good folks at the Pew Internet and American Life project have published their latest report, looking at the remarkable transformation that the mobile phone continues to effect on the lives of teenagers.

The Boomers' adolescent lives were transformed by the auto, which gave kids the mobility to get away from their parents' oversight — the emblem of this transformation being the teen couple screwing in the back seat at a drive-in (protected from unwanted pregnancy by the Pill). This is often cited as an example of the wild directions in which the Law of Unintended Consequences can hare off.

But I always thought that this account of the car was incomplete, because it left out one very important change to adolescent life in America: the widespread adoption of driving licenses by teens meant that for the first time in American history, practically every adolescent could be expected to carry government-issued identity papers.

Today, in 2010, if I were asked to evaluate which second-order effect — the sexual revolution or the identity card — was more profound, it'd be hard to pick one. But the effect of identity papers took a lot longer to be felt.

The ubiquitous mobile phone in adolescent hands has meant an enormous increase in adolescent freedom to communicate and to form groups to take action. But it's also meant an unprecedented (and as yet, largely unfelt) increase in the amount of surveillance data available to parents and authority figures, from social graphs of who talks to whom to logs of movement to actual records of calls and texts.

Will we wake up in 20 years and say, "Christ, how could we have spent all that time talking about how kids were sending each other texts without taking note of the fact that we'd given every teen in America his own prisoner tracking cuff and always-on bug?"

* Text messaging has become the most frequent way that teens reach their friends, surpassing face-to-face meetings, email, instant messaging and voice calling as a daily communications tool.

* The typical American teen sends and receives 50 or more messages per day, or 1,500 per month. And there are a sizeable number who do much more than that: 31% of teens send and receive more than 100 messages per day or more than 3,000 messages a month; 15% of teens who are texters send more than 200 texts a day, or more than 6,000 texts a month.

· The report runs down a lot of details about the things that teens do with their phones besides texting and talking. For example: 83% use their phones to take pictures; 60% play music on their phones; 46% play games on their phones; 32% exchange videos on their phones; 27% go online for general purposes on their phones; 23% access social networking sites on their phones.

Teens and Mobile Phones