Berkshire teens bucking the techno trend

Sunday January 30, 2011

The mild tapping of text-messaging fingers, the silent scrolling through a constantly updated feed of Facebook profiles on an iPhone -- these are the quiet calls of a generation growing up wired.

But a small minority of young people wants to make some noise.

"The texting phenomenon was really something that I had a strong aversion to," said Grace Rossman, a sophomore at Monument Mountain Regional High School in Great Barrington.

Rossman, 15, turned down her parents' offer to buy her a cell phone when all of her classmates were getting them in seventh grade. Rossman's no-thanks puts her among a rare species of teens who choose to limit their time in front of screens of all kinds because they're opposed to technology's takeover.

Initially, Rossman, an Egremont resident, said no to the cell because she was wary of cell phone radiation, which some have claimed has links to cancer. But after observing her peers' avid dependence on the devices for the past several years, other reasons for avoiding a phone of her own took precedence.

"Everybody always has a phone in their face or under a desk." Rossman said. "At lunch, while you're trying to have a conversation with somebody, they're texting somebody else."

Her observation is in line with the latest findings: Texting has superseded face-to-face interaction as the most common manner of daily communication between teenagers ages 12 to 17, according to a study of the Pew Internet and American Life Project published in April.

To express and satirize what she thought were the insidious results of her text-addled generation's addiction, Rossman created a short film with some classmates.

The movie, titled "i luv u," follows a boy and a girl as they exchange increasingly deep, meaningful text messages to one another. Then, the two are shown having lunch together, where the viewer discovers the pair don't have a thing to say to one another face-to-face. Once they part, the film ends with them texting each other, "i luv u."

It's the kind of situation that Rossman said she observes constantly in real life: new communication modalities that offer the appearance of connection without its content.

Among her peers as well as adults in general, Rossman's principled stance against these communications technologies is increasingly unusual.

Seventy-five percent of 12- to 17-year-olds own cell phones, while only 45 percent did in 2004, according to the Pew study. Among American adults, 82 percent are cell owners.

"I don't know a kid who isn't connected. I really don't," said Marie Richardson, a case worker for Educational Options for Success, or EOS, at Taconic High School.

Even kids whose families are struggling financially still have pricey phones, she said. "They'd sooner give up their arm than their phone."

At Taconic, cell phones are supposed to be turned off and stored during the school day, and kids can get their phone taken away if they disobey. When this does happen, the results can be more telling than any statistic about the role the cell phone plays in the average teen's life.

"They get nervous and clearly agitated," Richardson said. "And it's not just a quote ‘bad' kid -- it's any kid. ... I think kids have to be connected. It's almost a need, a survival instinct."

Even if teenagers are developing a visceral requirement for connection, some still view the devices as irksome.

The Pew study called cell phones for teenagers a "mixed blessing," saying that "some teens chafe at the electronic tether to their parents that the phone represents."

Not only that, but the study found that 48 percent of teens who own a cell phone get annoyed when a call or text message interrupts what they are doing.

The frustration of being perpetually reachable was one element of 15-year-old Matt Whalan's decision to turn off his cell phone for good in December.

A Monument Mountain student, Whalan had a gut feeling that the technology was not for him.

"I'm against a lot of communication technology," Whalan said. "I think it's a way that people put up walls."

There were other problems, too -- like the time in middle school he accidentally ruined a relationship with a girlfriend with a missent text.

Since then, the feeling that some friendships were created by -- and relied upon -- AOL Instant Messenger or texting increasingly bothered the Housatonic resident.

"How many people only care about me if we can talk that way?" Whalan said.

So, three months ago, he ended his tenure on instant messenger. A little more than a month ago, the cell phone went, too.

The decision surprised Whalan's mother, Ellen Lahr, who had been planning to give her son an iPhone for Christmas.

Initially, she protested not being able to reach him wherever he was. Now she realizes the cell phone isn't necessary as long as they make a plan.

On top of that, she said she has rediscovered the comfortable feeling of having her son's friends call the house phone to reach him.

"It was a real issue of these kids communicating at the exclusion of the adults," she said. "That's one of the things I really missed -- you don't know your kids' friends. [Now] the phone has been ringing a little bit more. I like that, putting a voice to a name."

On the flip side, the few parents who don't keep cell phones themselves are hoping they can instill the same behavior in their children.

Jim McGrath, Pittsfield's parks manager, has done without a cell since he no longer needed one for work in 2007.

"It's been nice to have that degree of autonomy, and not to feel as if there's a leash connecting you to everyone and everything," he said.

His wife, Christine, keeps a cell phone in case their sons need anything at school or day care.

Ian, 8, and Kyle, 4, aren't old enough for their own cells yet, but McGrath said he hopes that when the devices start cropping up in their friends' hands, he and Christine can keep their children phone-free.

"I hope they embrace it," McGrath said of his no-tech wish. "We may be the holdouts, and they may be better for it in the end."

To reach Amanda Korman:
(413) 496-6243


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