By Marcello Iaia
BERNE — The touchstone of a generation of Internet-connected mobile devices, the iPhone was first sold during the summer of 2007. Around the same time, Twitter was gaining traction as a means for immediate and worldwide communication. Just a year before, the social-networking website Facebook started welcoming high school students.
When cell equipment was installed in Berne in 2009, Facebook had 300 million users and Apple had sold roughly 20 million iPhones. Those numbers are now well over 1 billion users, and 250 million iPhones.
For developing teenagers, this world of mobile communication is an established part of society. Adults have to learn and adapt. What isn’t established is its effect, if any, on perceptions or realities of safety and privacy.
“I think it’s a completely different world,” said Jeffrey Haas, who grew up in Berne.
Haas, an electrician, worked on installing the infrastructure for grounding and connecting power to the cell equipment that replaced the bell in the steeple at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, a few hundred feet from the Berne-Knox-Westerlo High School he had attended. That is what made it possible to use cell phones at BKW and elsewhere in Berne.
This past Christmas, Haas bought his 14-year-old son an iPhone 5. It’s the newest generation of a phone that is virtually a pocket-sized computer. With its many security features, Haas said the idea was to monitor and control his son’s use through his own iPhone.
The Enterprise agreed to the elder Haas’s request to withhold his son’s name. (See editorial.)
“My intent is to get literate with that and use it for that,” said Haas. “The intent in allowing him to get the iPhone for Christmas is to exert my parental authority.”
Almost a month later, the phone was taken away from Haas’s son. He said it happened during a study hall and the phone had never left his pocket. The BKW Code of Conduct requires cell phones to be turned off and put away during school. They are to be used only with permission or for emergency calls.
Haas was outraged and called a local television station. Interviews with Haas were broadcast across local channels, on radio, and covered in print over the last week of January. He claimed BKW Principal Brian Corey invaded his son’s Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure by going through the phone and calling the police after finding nude pictures of his son’s ex-girlfriend, also 14.
After a police investigation, the iPhone was returned to the Haases and no charges were made.
With a heightened concern over school safety, some parents want to equip their children with direct lines of communication. Others say mobile devices distract and have no place in schools.
“Our teacher said something one time, that, as long we were doing work on it, he wouldn’t care. And then I told him, you know, I would actually do that. So I started taking notes in science class, and I started using it in other classes,” Hass’s son said, sitting in his living room on Superbowl Sunday.
A flat screen TV was on and flickering, and the sleek phone, recently returned from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office, was laid on the floor, charging.
The ninth grader spoke casually about his use of the technology, and social websites, like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
“I guess, if I didn’t have my phone, I’d probably be bored all the time. It’s just something to keep you entertained. It’s just something you do,” said the younger Haas.
His English assignments are written and posted online, and concise messages or questions for a teacher are published to a Twitter page, all from his phone. Haas’s son said he makes calls often, but his thumbs churn out texts to friends more than he speaks to them.
“I don’t see anything different between texting and talking to someone in person,” he said. “I don’t see much difference, if you were going to break-up with someone over texting,” he said, rather than ending a relationship in person.
The idea that uses of new media are different from previous ones is a factor of a person’s age, Susan C. Herring wrote in a 2008 paper titled, “Questioning the Generational Divide: Technological Exoticism and Adult Constructions of Online Youth Identity,” published in Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. Younger generations who grow up with mobile media, she suggests, don’t think of smart phones or e-mail as new technology.
“Peer groups and social relations are arguably more influential during youth than at any other life stage, and young people use and think about technology differently according to their cultural, economic, and family contexts,” wrote Herring, a professor of information science at Indiana University.
Haas’s son awakened his phone and displayed a list of texts on its glass screen. It was a slice of a long list of texts, and a larger volume of such interactions with his friends, but they showed the small talk he attested to: “Hey what’s up, man?”
With regard to the sending of nude photos by e-mail, his father said the technology isn’t much different than a hard copy.
“We all have that story, like the kids got caught playing doctor,” said Haas, adding that it still should not be allowed. “If every one of us had a camera, we could push a button and send pictures, then we’d have sent pictures. We’re applying a standard that we wouldn’t have held to ourselves.”
Haas’s son said he has noticed seventh grade is generally the youngest point at which people start social connections through the Internet or cell phones. He got his first cell phone as a seventh-grader.
Teens entering high school are at different stages of puberty, as connections between different areas of their brains are being made, in a back-to-front direction, lasting into their twenties. The pre-frontal cortex area just behind the forehead is responsible for regulation of judgment, emotion, and attention. Its offset development is associated with teens’ tendencies to take risks or make decisions based on emotion.
“I think, if the kids didn’t have a smart phone with a camera on it, then the odds of sending a picture around would be greatly reduced,” said the elder Haas.
He uses the camera on his iPhone frequently for work, to document that his a project is completed, in case the valuable copper wiring is stolen soon after.
“I used to be able to not be on call at work,” he said.
Before there was reception in the Hilltowns, Haas said he would use his landline, but the convenience of having the phone in his pocket means he interacts with people a little more.
Growing up in Berne, Haas said his circle of friends were his neighbors. Now, teenagers can interact all night through their phones, regardless of the great distances of the Hilltowns.
“I’m able to utilize it in my life whereas he has to master it, and it is his life,” Haas said of his son’s future career. “The stuff that he has on the phone is going to be totally different than the stuff I have on my phone…I don’t treat this as my personal link to the world and he does.”
His son has friends who are older and who drive. Going out might mean getting pizza in Guilderland, playing video games, or going to BKW basketball games.
“We like to go snowmobiling. I honestly would prefer not to have my cell phone on me when I go,” said Haas’s son. “It just ruins the experience if I have to stop and check on people.”
Haas said he lives in the Hilltowns because it is disconnected, a joy he didn’t appreciate as much when he was younger and looked forward to living in a city.
“I just want to be on my quiet little plot of land up here and be left alone and I feel like my rights were violated by the school,” he said.
Inspector Mark DeFrancesco of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office said a week after the phone was confiscated that some schools have zero-tolerance rules for cell phones, and others use them for classes.
“Child pornography doesn’t have an age limit, but obviously you have to take into account, I think, when the laws were made; there probably wasn’t even texting, let alone to this extent, with pictures being e-mailed back and forth,” said DeFrancesco.
For Jeff Temple, a psychologist and assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at University of Texas Medical Branch, the technology itself is not driving the problem of sexting, the sending of sexual media.
“I think that smart phones and access to smart phones…has certainly made this an issue. I think that we’ve always been, and every culture is, a ‘You show me yours and I’ll show you mine.’”
It’s the access to the technology that makes a difference, not the generations, according to Temple, who is also vice president of the board of trustees at the Galveston Independent School District in Texas.
“My guess is that all schools are going to allow cell phone use and that’s just going to be part of the education curriculum. That’s how you’re going to ask questions and that’s how you’re going to communicate with the teacher,” said Temple.