Technology

Cell Phones Big Brother Would Love


The cell phone—few inventions in recent memory have done more to help teens circumvent adult authority. Wireless handsets have proved an invaluable tool for snatching a conversation with a forbidden friend, sending a text message about a keg party the next town over, and generally reassuring a concerned parent a kid is right where he's supposed to be—even when he's not.

But the truancy tables are turning. With new programs like Sprint's (S) Family Locator, parents can use Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to locate a child's phone to within a few blocks. Verizon Wireless and Disney (DIS) Mobile are now getting into the act with comparable services.

As wireless technology has progressed, many of the advances have benefited kids, particularly when it comes to privacy. It gave them their own voicemail and the ability to send text or instant messages quickly and on the sly—be it from the backseat of the car, at the dinner table, or in the middle of class. Recent reports discuss a "silent ring-tone"—audible only to the sensitive ears of children—that pupils can use to receive calls without tipping off teachers.

TALK TO MEBut GPS (often available for $10 a month on top of your regular bill) scores one for parents. Will they take the point? Some parents balk at such location-based services as an invasion of privacy. "I have a good enough relationship with my kids that I don't think I need to stick a GPS on them," says Martha Feingold, a public relations executive from Palo Alto, Calif., with four children aged 10 to 17. "They'd be furious if I did something like that to them. They would see it as a complete lack of trust."

Some experts say there are better ways—such as plain old communication—to keep tabs on kids. "There should be a model where parents negotiate the deal with kids as to what the phone will be used for, on both sides," says Robbie Blinkoff, a consumer anthropologist who has studied cell phone usage among parents and teens.

Without communication, "technology gets in the way of just having a decent social relationship." What's more, Blinkoff says, while it appears that the cell phone is often an instrument of rebellion for kids, it can also help youngsters foster bonds with parents. "It often tethers the relationship," he says.

PARTY CAMAnd don't expect it to totally defeat wily, tech-savvy teens. "This is certainly another salvo in that fight, but it's not a slam dunk," says Jeffrey Belk of Qualcomm (QCOM), which developed the technology used on the Verizon (VZ) and Sprint networks, including the GPS system used by Sprint. "There will be counter measures—like excuses that the battery died or that the cell service was bad in the area the kid was in. But those will have limits. There are only so many dead battery cards the kid can play."

And down the road, the smart money may well be on parents. Why? Two-way video links will become more common on wireless networks. "Then it won't just be, ‘Where are you?' but, 'Show me what friends are at the party'," says Belk, who has three daughters of his own. "That would be really mortifying."


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