Adolescent Mobile Communication: Transformation of Communication Patterns of Generation SMS?Zdeňka Vykoukalová
Key words: adolescent mobile phone communication, welcome messages, SMS messages
Since the start of the millennium, the power of the mobile phone (cell phone) in adolescent life has become increasingly evident. Although the mobile phone was invented only as recently as 1973, in the past decade it has become an inseparable part of everyday life all over the world and its sphere of penetration continues to grow1. The speed with which this new device has conquered contemporary society, urges socio-psychological exploration.
In connection with mobile telephony or its influence on the transformation of society, many questions have arisen: Has interpersonal communication changed thanks to the continually increasing use of the mobile phone? Does increasing usage lead toward greater distance or toward greater closeness? In this article our objective was to find answers to these questions, and to focus on changes occurring in the communication among Czech youth caused by, or accelerated by, their use of mobile phones.
Mobile phone research
Despite lay media interest in mobile communication, there was little academic interest in research on the topic until the year 2000. In their effort to differentiate this “expert” and “lay” framing, Katz and Aakhus (2002) object to the low number of academic pieces of research, as opposed to everyday popular discourses dealing with mobile phone topic: “Despite billions of dollars and hours spent on mobile communication there is only weak academic interest on social aspects of these processes” (2002:3). However, the early years of 21 century have been a turning point for mobile communication research. Now, new academic papers are published every month. When examining a new media or phenomenon, researchers generally start with apparent and visible features and then proceed to less evident ones. Thus, when research into mobile phone use started, interest was often focused on its status function. Later it moved on to examine the “functions” of safety and control, and now it is heading towards long-term and less evident phenomena or changes. In this regard, mobile phone research can be classified into several groups with different headings according to their research focus. At the very beginning of the mobile phone research interest era, i.e. in early nineties, the focus of the research was to describe and analyze the status function of the new device (see Özcan, Kocak, 2003, Ling, 1997, Kim, 2002) as well as the position of non-users in increasingly more mobile society, very often the information gap and lessened social contact (Leung and Wei, 1999, Puro, 2002). Interest in the issues of security and control followed. Parents’ main objective in buying a mobile phone for their child was increased sense of security and control. The mobile phone started to be seen as a “virtual leash” protecting as well as checking their owners (Lorente, 2002). Questions about usage and the development of new patterns in that usage were another issue which was examined by Rich Ling, the originator of the theory of hyper-coordination and the concept of “the softening of time” (Ling, 2001). With wider usage of the device lay people as well as academics started to notice the need for new norms that would redefine “user ethics” and set solid rules on the usage of mobile phone in different circumstances (Ito, 2003, Oksman, Turtiainen, 2004). Recently long terms effects and changes have begun to be studied. Sheller and Urry (2003) started criticizing the static concept of public and private. They took into account both public and private spheres and suggested that this traditional division might be dead thanks to the usage of MP. (We use MP here as an abbreviation for “mobile phone”.) This was also supported by Ling (2001), Puro (2002) and Morley (2003). It seems that mobile phone usage changes old boundaries and sets new ones. In this connection Mante and Piris (2002) discussed blurring boundaries and differences in general, whether it was between countries, between home and work, between working time and leisure, or between time zones. This is where we placed our research question: What communication change might be accelerated by mobile phone usage? What boundaries are breached and what new ones are being built?
The following research questions were asked:
Q1: What are the key characteristics of mobile communication among adolescents?
Q2: What symbolic value is attributed to MP among adolescents?
Q3: Does usage of MP transform boundaries in family relationships in terms of distance (from parental control)?
Q4: Does usage of MP transform communication in partner relationships regarding openness and intimacy?
In order to answer these questions a mixed research design was employed using a quantitative as well as a qualitative-interpretative approach of accessing and interpreting data in terms as Yanow (2005) understands them. In order to obtain a complete picture of the mobile communication phenomena, three methods were used: survey, semi-structured interviews and document analysis. The research sample was composed of three 3rd year classes of grammar school students coming from a small Moravian town, i.e. 78 participants aged between 17 and 18. All the data were collected in May 2005.
Initially students were asked to fill in a survey composed of descriptive questions on their mobile phone usage, e.g. costs, availability, tools used (camera, Bluetooth, MMS) etc. They were also requested to copy all their incoming SMS messages within one working day, from 00:00 – 24:00 of the same day. They were assured their data would be kept anonymous and were promised a copy of the research results. The response rate of both survey and collected SMS was very high – 76 surveys and 300 transcribed SMS from 68 subjects were collected. This response rate was probably caused by the enormous popularity of the topic – students were deeply interested in participating in the research. In the final step, 15 volunteers were asked to take part in semi-structured interviews. These took place in the following two weeks and lasted between 0.5 and 2 hours.
To analyze the data, the following methods were used: survey data were analyzed using descriptive statistics. The SMS data were subjected to quantitative as well as qualitative textual analysis. The semi-structured interviews were analyzed qualitatively. In this article we focus primarily on the qualitative data.
1. Key characteristics of adolescent mobile communication
The research sample is characteristic of the typical teenage Czech population: of 76 subjects, 24 men and 52 women, only one respondent did not possess a mobile phone. Three fourths of respondents started using it three or four years prior to the study, i.e. at the age of 13 or 14. Their mobile phone costs were approximately CZK 250, which was around half of their monthly pocket money. Adolescents in our sample used the textual channel almost exclusively, rarely using voice communication. If they called, they called their parents. Most often they sent text messages to their friends and partners.
Apart from the calling and texting, they used their phones to play games. They rarely used sophisticated functions, such as MMS, WAP, GPRS, Bluetooth or camera. They did not find them important. As far as the “status function” is concerned, adolescents preferred using screen savers, pictures or ringing tones which might attract the attention of “the informed”, who could appreciate the currency, humor, irony or other attached meanings of particular melody selected.
“Do you want to see my mobile? Siemens SX1 [is showing the device – there is a photograph of a blonde girl in red heart on the screen]” What melody is it?
“That’s distinguishing melody so I know who is calling. I have it from one PC game, it’s called Worms, and the melodies are all quite funny. And I have a special one for my mother, it’s called “mad cow”. And it’s so funny when it starts ringing and I pick it up and say “Hi mum”. Everybody is roaring with laughter.” Martin
2. Symbolic meaning
Mobile phones, as a medium of social cohesion, have enormous symbolic meaning in everyday life of adolescents. Two thirds of respondents never switch it off; one third never puts it away. Around third of respondents stated in the interviews that they have had their mobile phone with them permanently; they carried it placed directly on their bodies or belts, checking it incessantly, at night they placed it on the pillow, or possibly into the battery charger next to bed.
Symbolic meaning attributed to “being switched off” is also interesting. From some answers it can be concluded that users switch off their MP in emotionally difficult situations, e.g. when they do not want to communicate, they are angry or depressed. It might be reasoned that this intentional switching off and metaphorical “locking oneself in one’s room”, i.e. elimination of potential interaction and potential visitors, serves as a form of punishment of others.
“When I’m angry, I sometimes even switch off the mobile. When I know, that we had an argument for example, and [she] will write to me, I preventively switch off the phone and that’s it. I don’t care. Or on the other hand when I expect “nice” SMS message, that someone should answer me, I don’t sleep all night because of it. I might wake up at three in the morning, check my mobile and I have to read that SMS, I just have to… Look, this is my little sister [he is showing a picture at the MP screen saver], but she pissed me off in the morning, sooo… we are switching her off.” Petr
2.1. Welcome message - Extension of the Self
Mobile phone has a unique position regarding attributed intimacy. This medium incorporates the advantages of the classic phone and adds to them a great deal of privacy. It enables storing personal artifacts of its owner. Among them is storing messages in modified diary form (see 2.2 below), using specific beautifying and personalizing tuning in form of melodies, pictures or design. Another option is to use welcome message which may internalize coded content with every switch on. In doing so, the owners not only personify it but above all they permanently incorporate it into their identities.
More than half of respondents used welcome messages, which is a tool without obvious pragmatic function and which works to certain extent as a kind of intra-psychic communication. Shall this function be used it means it is of particular importance to its owner, who thus internalizes their relationship towards the mobile phone and creates an emotional tie, symbolic relationship to it, which can substitute the presence of another person to certain extent. See these examples below:
Somebody stop me
God is the winner!
Good morning major Gagarin
Good morning princess
You are gorgeous
You are my hope
God loves you
You’ll make it.
Have a good day
Love is not a theory. Love is life.
These messages serve a variety of functions: they can be “drivers” or motivating agents or can fulfill certain need, e.g. emotional uplift, humor, encouragement, love and belonging or safety. With its help, the owners talk to themselves through the device. They encourage, motivate, greet, advise or make fun of themselves. Thus they carry with themselves their view of life and/or of events happening around them.
2.2 SMS as a diary substitute
SMS messages often serve as a diary substitute. Most adolescents store some important messages. Some of them return to these message and reread them, or they rewrite them or store them in another way. Stored messages are most often from partners and peers and usually have romantic, positive or humorous connotations, or they are congratulations on special occasions.
What messages do you store?
“I keep only the positive ones. If someone writes me something negative I erase it and wait for a better one.” Petr
“I have a new mobile phone now, which is great because I can store up to ninety SMS. So I do that and erase some from time to time and if someone writes me something nice, like a quotation or something I save it and often read it again and again until I know it by heart.” Lenka
“… usually from some guy, you know, whom I like, I can have lots of messages. I have them maybe a week and I read them until I know them by heart. Every word and every single dot.“ Lucka
It seems that repeated reading of SMS messages can invoke preferred emotions within the reader. According to participants from our sample, SMS messages can invoke (positive) emotions, so when the receiver wishes to be encouraged or just simply “feel good”, they turn to them and use them as a source of encouragement. Also SMS messages can bring the sender near, provide sense of closeness and thus simultaneously substitute their absence.
“When I am in a bad mood, I go through my SMS messages and look for some nice ones and read them and after that I feel better…”
2.3 The mobile phone as a lifeline
Can you imagine not having a mobile phone?
“If I didn’t have it I would die.”
From the interviews we drew three main conclusions regarding the meaning of the device: (1) mobile phone has high intimacy rate, (2) is considered to be part of the self/identity (3) and appears to cause panic to the majority of owners in case of its loss. No other medium is considered to be so personal that in case of its loss panic would be a serious option: “All my life depends on it… it would be like a comeback to prehistory”; “I could not communicate at all.” In this sense is loss of mobile phone compared to physical disintegration. In addition to that it seems as the majority of respondents could not even image comeback to the period “without mobile phone”, although they remember it and they have experienced it.
Can you imagine not having a mobile phone?
“No, not really, it would be very difficult; I would have to borrow it from others all the time. It is similar to when you don’t have credit and someone writes you and you can not answer, it’s terrible. I could not manage without it, even thought I am hooked to the internet, but it would be impossible. If I lost it today, I would have a new mobile phone tomorrow, it is not possible to be without it, it would be unacceptable for me. For example talking to people, agreeing on things, would be a terrible waste of time and money for me. Earlier people had nothing to do. They had more free time, did not have computers and televisions and nowadays we have all, you try a bit of everything and get bored very fast.” Martin
Our results indicate that usage of the phone in adolescents’ eyes is seen as a turning point in viewing the world, in understanding time, particularly its continuity and historicity. Mobile phone enables solving the situation immediately, saves time and also avoids “waiting” for some situations to happen. You just dial a number and you know in a moment, what you need to know. Moreover, life “before the mobile phone” is perceived as a very distant, hardly imaginable, old-fashioned and boring one.
3. Transformation of communication with parents
Can parents control their children?
“Well, they don’t tell them the truth, do they?”
In examining our subjects’ communication with their parents we looked at mechanisms of control and safety and of escape and distance. We found some repeated patterns. Usage of telephone for the purpose of communication with parents in this period has usually instrumental function. As was already mentioned, the adolescence is time when attention is focused on peer group and frequency of contacts with parents is decreasing, despite the fact that parents buy mobile phone to their children because of safety reasons or because they want greater control over them. Adolescents can even use accessibility as a key argument when they negotiate the purchase of the phone with their parents, even if the real reason is their desire to stay in contact with their peers. Adolescents oscillate between dependence and independence on their parents and they wish to stay in touch with them. At the same time they do not always appreciate parental interest in being a part of their social space.
“I went for beer the other day and my grandma called. Apparently I couldn’t tell her “Hi Granny, I’m drinking in the pub”, could I? So I told her I was on my way home. And that was just a stop on that way.” Ondřej
“Well, if I was with my boyfriend and my mum called me, I would tell her I’m somewhere else with someone else. They don’t like him very much.” Monika
Mobile phones may serve parents as a tool of control, as virtual “leash”. However, adolescents use various methods to avoid parental control via their mobile phones. Among the techniques are: Lying, being deliberately ambiguous, and giving excuses such as having switched off the ringing tone, having a dead battery, or having left one’s phone somewhere else. Typical reaction given by the respondents would be: “Of course I have sometimes lied to my parents; I didn’t want to get them worried.” We can sum up, that mobile phone suggests itself to be a convenient tool, which helps parents control their children, nevertheless “they can always find a way how to avoid it… circumvent it.” The following statement of one of the respondents is most apt: “He who wants to be controlled can be.”
And do your parents know who you call to or send messages to?
“Of course they don’t.”
And do they know your friends?
“Yeah, they know them.” Adam
In addition to that, it seems that parents do not orient themselves very well in their children’s mobile phone friends, i.e. they are not familiar with whom their children communicate over the phone. Mobile phone creates similar communication network as for example fixed line. However, it is a personalized channel so there is a significant difference: now it is without their parents’ supervision. Thanks to the usage of MP coincidental intergeneration contact connected to phoning from “family phone” or visit from friends or a partner is lost as they no longer pick their peers at home but ring them to tell them they are coming.
Moreover, adolescents often begin their relationships over the mobile phone and it is more and more difficult for parents to understand what their children think about, what are their worries and relations. They thus distance themselves from family relationships and at the same time begin new relationships, although they may often be based on virtual contact and communication.
4. Transformation of communication with partners
In comparison with face to face conversation the mobile communication is distinctive because of its absence of eye contact and nonverbal communication in general. With SMS exchanges this might be even more significant as there is more time to think about the message and the recipient cannot draw conclusions from the tone of voice and/or other body language indicators. Lack of nonverbal communication, shift of SMS communication in time and also the intimacy of SMS channel itself led us to the premise that partners would feel less embarrassed and restricted by the societal rules and thus would more often exchange more open or intimate textual contents through SMS than in face to face communication.
Adolescent communication with their partners is usually through SMS messages and this communication has mainly expressive function. Significant gender differences were not found. “We just call each other… because of nothing, just to hear each other and to wish good night in the evening…” was among frequent statements.
Most respondents see in this communication a possibility to verbalize intimate messages, which would stay unmentioned under different circumstances. “It happened to me many times that someone wrote me something he would never tell me face to face.” With the help of SMS technology adolescents mutually open to each other, they reveal their deepest feelings, they stay in frequent, if not permanent contact, share their private worlds around them regardless the distance that lies between them.
SMS communication plays very important role in expressing intimacy. It seems that mobile communication enables its users to perceive presence of others regardless the fact that the person in question is physically not there. Also the contact between the partners is often more frequent because of the technology. As another respondent stated: “Yeah, we both go to the same school here, but we write to each other every day. So we meet at school and then we exchange text messages in the afternoon and evening.”
“With my boyfriend I write him things that would be far more difficult to tell. It is easier like this as I’m ashamed to talk about some things openly. And then we discuss it over SMS and then it is OK.” Jarka
Adolescents learn how to express emotions and intimacy which they are not yet ready to express face-to-face by using texting. According to our interviewees they later transfer this into face-to-face interactions.
This also works for conflicts and arguments, which are a necessary part of sharing and intimacy. It seems that SMS communication makes emotional expressions, thought now from exactly the opposite pole of the spectrum easier, too. Adolescents from our sample admit that they argue together, take offence and later make it up with the support of SMS. They thus “discuss” the problematic issue and then they do not have to come back to it again in face to face communication. Eventually, the situation is less emotional, given the fact it has been dealt with before (through the texting). Moreover, the unpleasant or problematic situation thus stays “separated” from the reality.
For partner communication it is characteristic that expressing honesty and lying, thanks to the technological form, gains ground as well. Mobile phone may simplify open and honest statements.
Obviously, lying or manipulating others is also easier. Pretending things via SMS is simpler and easier as there is no need to look the other in their eyes and as one interviewee stated “written word does not have the same weight as spoken”. In addition to that, many aspects of communication, e.g. facial expressions and gestures, are filtered out. Brought out in words of other respondent: “On one side you can work on expressing yourself in the best way possible, and on the other you can easily pretend whatever you want.”
In this article four aspects of our research were presented: we briefly described key characteristics of a mobile phone usage among Czech adolescents, focused on the symbolic meaning of the medium, and examined the transformation of communication with both our participants’ parents and with their partners.
In agreement with others (see Puro, 2002; Kim, 2002) our results confirm strong need of adolescents to be continuously connected to the social network of their close others, being available everywhere and for everyone. A mobile phone is seen as an extension of themselves enabling them to continuously participate in the surrounding world. The need to have it always at hand supports the idea of mobile phone as a teddy bear, an object of fetishism that possesses of unique power and ownership of a close person and that offers a compensation of a need for intimacy (Katz, Aakhus, 2002). In face to face communication adolescents behave and express themselves in a way that is qualitatively different from the way they use to communicate on the phone. Unpleasant, daunting situations or on the contrary situations too intimate and thus puzzling are easily communicated through technology, that makes artificial dividing line between the addressee and addressed. Technology that creates safe zone enabling to escape from parental control, initiate or finish a relationship, experience variety of emotions or just have fun, while the physical self stays safely anchored in the living room sofa.
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(1) Mobile phone is the most popular product of consumer electronics in the world according to the Czech daily MF Dnes (23.11.2006). It is estimated that in 2007 1.1 billion of mobile phones will be sold in developing countries, e.g. China, India and Africa. In 2006 960 million was sold and in 2005 it was 817 million. Further growth in sales is not expected in developed countries, where the penetration has already surpassed 100%.
Zdenka Vykoukalova acknowledges the support of the Czech Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports (MSM0021622406) and Faculty of Social Studies, Masaryk University.