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24/7, Teens Get the Message

Digital devices keep young people connected -- to each other. E-mail is too slow but 10 hours a day on a cellphone isn't too much.

June 23, 2005|Terril Yue Jones | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In a not-at-all unusual month, Will Wu spent more than 10,000 minutes on his mobile phone -- an average of 5 1/2 hours a day.

Sometimes he talked, sometimes he listened. But most of the time, the 15-year-old just dialed up a friend and left the phone on. Connected only by wireless headsets, Will and his pal spent entire days -- together, but apart -- shopping, snacking, doing homework and even nodding off to sleep.

"If I ever wanted to talk I could just say something into the phone and there'd be someone on the other end. You wouldn't have to dial," said Will, a sophomore at Miramonte High School in Orinda, east of San Francisco, whose Cingular Wireless calling plan includes free calls to any other Cingular customer. "Basically it was convenient."

Like an increasing number of youths growing up in an age of cheap mobile phones and fast Internet connections, Will is connected 24/7 to family and friends through an array of gadgetry. So obsessed are teens with devices like digital music players, cellphones, digital cameras and hand-held organizers, that 15-year-old girls are now the world's top consumers of computer chips, said Chuck Byers, director of global marketing at chip maker Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.

Children these days get cellphones as early as elementary school and pick up computer-speak abbreviations -- AFK for "away from keyboard," for instance, or A/S/L, meaning "age/sex/location?" -- at an age when they are memorizing state capitals for social studies class.

"Teenagers have adopted this technology very aggressively, in part because it's inexpensive now, and it's mobile -- and everything a teenager does is about being mobile and untethered," said David Greenfield, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Connecticut. "With the complexity of our world and the scheduling kids have compared with 25, 30 years ago, it's a newer way of connecting socially."

But it fills an age-old need that dates to adolescents slouching out to meet other prehistoric pubescents.

"All young generations interact socially, and part of their adolescence is interacting apart from their parents; that's been true since the Neolithic revolution," said economist and historian Neil Howe, who as co-author of the book "Millennials Rising" chronicled the social and cultural direction of millennials -- those born in 1982 and later. "Millennials are using the technology to express a need to push in a fundamentally different direction: back toward reconnecting people to larger groups," Howe said.

And the sizes of those groups are exploding, driven in large part by technologies such as instant messaging, or IM. Users are able to see who among their friends is online, and can send messages that pop up on the recipient's screen instantaneously.

More than a quarter of 15- to 18-year-olds in the U.S. can send instant messages from their bedrooms, said Victoria Rideout of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which in March published an extensive study on Internet use by 8- to 18-year-olds.

"Think about a kid who may be online IM-ing 10 other kids, each of them IM-ing 10 other kids," Rideout said. "You've potentially got 100 kids in a social group more or less in instant communication."

Ryan Miller's group is pretty big. The 13-year-old's IM "buddy list" teems with 110 people, mostly people he sees regularly and all of whom he messages at least occasionally in this rite of bonding over bandwidth. For Ryan, a seventh-grader in Centennial, Colo., the messaging does not only define his community. It's also a social necessity.

"It's a big popularity thing," Ryan said in a phone conversation as he was holding IM dialogues with four friends. "If you don't talk online to people, like most other people do, you miss things they talk about. There could be a whole event that happened, like somebody dumped somebody, and you talk about it online and if you're not there, then the next day you don't know what people are talking about."

The most popular instant messaging program, AIM, is distributed by America Online. "If you don't have AIM, you don't have friends," Will Wu said.

On a recent evening, Will sat in front of his computer and flipped among seven simultaneous online IM sessions. In one, he argued the relative merits of Volkswagen's Golf R32 and the BMW M3. In another, he fretted over an upcoming Spanish test. He gossiped about classmates in another and discussed Asian music videos in yet another.

Between munches of grapes, Will's hands flew between the keyboard and the mouse in a rhythm too fast for a visitor to read the incoming messages, let alone Will's rapid-fire responses. "Pieces" by the band Sum 41 streamed out of his computer speakers, but before the track was over, he switched to "She's the Blade" by Sugarcult and then to Ace Troubleshooter's "Tonight."

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