Many concerned parents take steps to prevent their kids from watching unsuitable material on television, like extreme violence and unfiltered sex. Devices like the V-chip and child lock, which most new TV sets come fitted with, make this a fairly simple affair. Parents also try to keep a check on what their little darlings are surfing on their laptops. However, there is a more insidious menace for kids, which is even more alarming, because it is not recognized as dangerous. I am talking about that must have accessory for today’s teenagers and pre-teens – the cell phone.
The situation I describe below is prevalent in India, but it is probably pretty much the same in America. To stat with, almost all cell phones these days – even the cheaper models – come equipped with a camera, which also allows one to shoot short video clips. Teenage boys have been using this facility to surreptitiously shoot photos under girls’ skirts, although this is more out of mischief than evil intent. What is more dangerous is that, during the past few years, teenagers have been caught using their camera phones to shoot video clips of their friends at wild parties, usually indulging in activities guaranteed to ground them for at least a month. Then the indiscreet victims are blackmailed, either for money or sex, as a price for the shooters maintaining their silence. There have been incidents of school kids circulating compromising photos of other kids among their classmates, either as a lark or to get even for a perceived grudge. This can sometimes have disastrous consequences. Newspapers have reported incidents of kids committing suicide, because they could not bear the humiliation.
Another alarming trend is perhaps not that dangerous, but damaging nonetheless. Parents have long griped about their kids chatting forever on their cell phones and running up exorbitant phone bills. That is only the tip of the iceberg – and it is not entirely the kids’ fault. The cell phone service providers keep coming up with ingenious plans to make the kids part with their parents’ money. Chief among these is the infamous SMS or Short Messaging Service. It is considered cool to carry out silent, secret conversations with friends during a boring geography class, say. The catch is that the kids are charged for each SMS they send out; and a half hour chat can add up to a lot of text messages. Multiply that by twenty each month; and you begin to get an idea of what I am talking about. It’s actually more expensive than talking for the same length of time. Sending out multi-media messages is a lot cooler, of course, and a lot more expensive.
Then there are those infamous contests that seem to propagate like rabbits. Every day, in addition to invitations to download ring tones and pictures of "gorgeous, sexy models", for a price, of course – I get unsolicited invitations to answer a simple question and "win" a high end cell phone, or some even more expensive item. The questions are deliberately kept so easy that they would not tax the brain of a moron, thereby increasing the temptation to take part – again, for a price. What those guys forget to mention is that they have sent the same text message to a few million subscribers; and that your chances of actually winning anything are a zillion to one.
And what about the proliferation of game shows on television? There are singing competitions, dancing competitions, stand-up comic competitions – the list goes on and on. Under the guise of audience participation, viewers are asked to vote for their favorites; and encouraged to do so as often as they like. The preferred mode of voting is, naturally, by text messaging; which is usually charged at higher than the normal rate. Viewers get caught up in the deliberate hype and lose sight of how much they are spending – and the phone companies gleefully rake in the moolah.
Also, most medium and high end cell phones – with 3G technology – have the ability to enable the user to log on to the internet as easily as from a laptop. Not only is there a fairly stiff monthly fee for using this service, users have to pay for every MB they use up in surfing or downloading. And it really adds up. I use my cell phone quite sparingly. Before I bought a new Nokia E51 business phone, an average refill used to last me about six months; now I run out of talk time in less than two. And I am a supposedly mature adult who can exercise self control. Can you imagine what sort of phone bill a 15-year old could run up? The other aspect is that since cell phones can be used anywhere, kids can secretly download porn without their parents having a clue.
The situation can only get worse. Cell phone manufacturers are now marketing to kids as young as five; and even pre-schoolers. Recently I saw a hideous cell phone in the shape of Barney the dinosaur. The manufacturers are relying on peer pressure to make a killing. "Fun" models are initially offered at attractive discounts. They know that once a few hundred first graders get hold of these gizmos, their friends will drive their parents crazy until they get one.
I appreciate that the cell phone is a modern marvel. It makes you perennially accessible – though that is not always a good thing. It also enables parents to keep track of their kids’ whereabouts. But like many modern marvels, they need to be used with prudence and restraint – two attributes most teenagers are particularly bereft of.