Teenage Rebellion? It?s All Talk!
By Tim Bird, Fri Mar 01 00:00:00 GMT 2002

The mobile phone is a new symbol of restless youth, the contemporary focus for the adolescent hormonal flood.

The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything. Oscar Wilde’s epigram rings truer now than it did in his day, especially the last part. Nothing is mysterious for kids any more: they are familiar with everything to do with sex, violence and adult corruption from an early age. Teenage rebellion? They’ll be lucky. Their parents probably like the same music, watch the same cult movies. For heaven’s sake, they even carry the same brand of mobile phone.

If we are to believe a stack of surveys, and overlook their largely anecdotal nature, the mobile phone is a new symbol of restless youth, the contemporary focus for the adolescent hormonal flood. It’s not that hard to imagine all the great icons of modern teenage rebellion with mobiles pressed to their ears… Elvis Presley, James Dean, Mick Jagger, Johnny Rotten, Kurt Cobain. But would a cocky little mobile device really have made any difference to their menace quota at the height of their sneering heydays?

Should we regret the fact that the cell phone is about as extreme as kids get in terms of symbols of dissent? Or should we perhaps be grateful that, rather than poisoning their lungs with tobacco behind the bike shed in time honoured tradition, the teenagers of the 21st century are choosing to talk themselves to death? In Britain at least, scientists have concluded that a fall in smoking among 15-year-olds from 30 to 23 per cent in the three years up to 1999 could be related to a 70 per cent increase in cell phone ownership over the same period.

It’s certainly true that any respectable (and these days, they usually are respectable) 21st century teenage survival kit includes a mobile phone, tucked in nicely with the Walkman. Take 18-year-old Finn, Eveliina Lehtonen, who bought her first phone just after her 18th birthday.

“I was excited about getting a mobile, and I played with it for hours,” she says. “I had been thinking about it for a while. Everyone else had had one for years. I got some extra money and I thought a phone would be good thing to spend it on. I write text messages almost every day, although sometimes it’s wiser to call than to send many text messages.” Notice the emphasis on wisdom here. Good for Eveliina, I say, but it’s not a word I used much when I was a teenager.

According to the Professor of Respiratory and Environmental Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, William MacNee, mobile phones may help teenage girls like Eveliina feel more adult, serving as an adolescent prop in the same way as cigarette smoking used to. Making a call, or just being seen to hold a phone, thinks MacNee, may serve as an “important sign of entering the adult world”, and may be helping to curb the rise in smoking in the under 18 age group. What this theory does not take into account, of course, is that teenagers these days enter the adult world from the moment they learn how to turn on the TV.

Mobile phone use in the UK and elsewhere, especially among teenagers, has boomed as a result of the availability of cheap pre-paid packages directed specifically at a trendy young market and promoted, for instance, through CD and video shops. At least, the packages seem cheap at first. One Australian 18-year-old was reported as having clocked up a three-month bill of over 3,000 ASD.

But some things never change. Teenagers have always needed their parents’ support to fund their habits. And in the case of mobile phones, it’s reassuring to know that kids – collectively, anyway - are prepared to let their parents pay a high price. In Norway, where the mobile fixation is as fanatic as anywhere else in Scandinavia, the Norsk Telecom service provider estimates that three quarters of all the country’s teenagers possess a mobile, totting up charges of over 60 million euros a year on calls and messages.

Tones and logos comprise the new secret code of youth, but even here, for services on which vast fortunes are spent annually, you get the sense that the kids are gently responding to fashions rather than going crazy in SMS orgies. “At first I downloaded a couple of tones and a logo, but not any more,” says Eveliina, a good-looking, clever, but not exceptionally virtuous girl who is mad about the Manic Street Preachers. “But if I hear about a cool one, I have to get it. Now I have a Lord of the Rings logo, and a tone from a song by The Verve.”

2B OR NT 2B?

The mobile phone has a long way to go before it can truly represent a two-finger salute to the adult establishment. Look at the many teenagers receiving phones as Christmas presents from parents who value the reassurance and security aspects. Such convenience works both ways, of course: Junior can let Mum know he’ll be late back from school, but he can also get Dad to come and pick him up at inconvenient moments. Mobile phone applications for youngsters vary from the sublimely modern – keeping in touch with absent parents in broken families – to the ridiculously banal – calling friends in adjacent classrooms or sometimes even in the same classroom. The plotting of riots does not figure highly.

On the other side of the world, cell phones are hot accessories for the youth of south-east Asia, from Japan to Hong Kong. “Most of the demand comes from the 15-25 age group,” confirms Steven Franks, whose company Riot-E Asia has launched ‘Flirt’, a service that “helps users boost their pulling power by practising their moves in different social situations”. The jury is out on whether this idea will take off, but a symptom of 21st century youth is that a teenager in Singapore is likely to share the same tastes in music and fashion as one in Frankfurt. Neither is likely to opt for sweet-talking their handset as a serious rehearsal for the real thing.

South-east Asian kids may be tuned in to the same rock bands as Eveliina and her mates in Finland, but they have their own groups too. So in Singapore you can find yourself a ring tone by Mandarin and Cantonese stars such as Any Lau, Cass Peng, Jackie Cheung and Eric Moo. In Japan no teenager would dare be seen in the city’s Shibuya district without the latest handset. But although wireless Internet services are much more popular and widespread in Japan than in Europe, the applications popular with teenagers are basically the same: the most fashionable ring tone, SMS or email for contacting friends, the usual teenage gossip.

In the UK the real rebels don’t bother talking on mobile phones: they concentrate on stealing them. When faced with their children’s bills, some parents probably wish theft were even more widespread. But watch out kids, the mobile is a double-edged sword: schools in Singapore have been known to alert parents about their children’s truancy by means of SMS messages. In the UK, some government experts believe the popularity of text messaging ought to be exploited “to encourage youngsters to enjoy reading and writing”. The Department of Education and Employment has gone as far as to set up pilot trials around the UK to introduce kids to the joys of literacy via the medium of SMS. What next? SMS exams? The Mobile University? 2B OR NT 2B?

Tim Bird is an English journalist who has been living in Finland since 1982. He has learned to like his mobile phone, but likes to think that he can resist becoming a slave to it.