American Teens: Stupid or Spoiled?

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 17 October 2003

America’s teen market may prove difficult for snazzy handset manufacturers to penetrate. But the real reasons for upgrade reluctance might surprise them.

I hadn’t been to Europe for close to a year, and have to admit I was surprised, even inspired by the speed with which young people are upgrading their handheld wireless devices over there. As I strolled the streets of many a London neighborhood, I saw kids taking photos, shooting video, sending real email (not just text messages or sms, but genuine internet mail), and even mo-blogging, nearly everywhere I looked.

These just weren’t the wealthy kids in the posh areas, but real people from a fairly wide variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds. It seemed to be that a majority of people under forty, and nearly everyone under 20, was sporting a fairly new and fully featured handset.

It was a stark contrast from the United Kingdom I remembered from even as late as the mid-nineties, when last decade’s television and radio more than sufficed for most people, and when the Internet was something accessed from a university or public facility. The British seemed to build technologies without planned obsolescence, and understood that owning a computer was not a prerequisite to online participation.

Rather than bemoan the rampant (perhaps American-born) consumerism that may have contributed to English youth’s rapid uptake of new cell phones, I chose instead to explore the factors motivating all this handset replacement. Why do they want the latest models? Style? Do they all love cell phone games? The ability to check sports scores from the street? Why must they send photos to one another with so much urgency that it requires always-ready wireless access?

The answer occurred to me as I wandered the Knightsbridge district in search of a place to check my email. There were no Internet cafes. My friends in South Kensington happened to own a computer and a connection - a very expensive and very spotty dial-up that disconnected after a couple of minutes. Unlike the United States, local phone calls in the UK actually cost money - a lot of money.

In such an environment, a highly functional cell phone is not a luxury gadget, but a primary access point to the net. It’s not seen as just another gadget to go along (and ultimately dock) with the PC, digital camera, mp3 player, webcam, and game console. It is to serve as all these things, all by itself.

In America, where consumerism still does run rampant, old PC’s are stacked in people’s closets, and landline access is cheap, or even free. On most residential phone plans, we don’t pay for individual local calls. Dial-up Internet access can be had for less than ten bucks a month, and unlimited broadband via cable or dsl for around thirty. Access is plentiful.

That’s why reluctance of America’s youth to dish out two or three hundred dollars on the latest Samsung camera phone or Sony mp3-capable handset may be incorrectly attributed to their lack of sophistication with wireless handheld devices. Nor is it the United States’ automobile-dependent transportation system, which leaves less time and free hands for mobile gaming and communications than the long bus or train rides of Tokyo and Amsterdam. And it’s certainly not a low appetite for digital services, messaging, music, and authoring. America’s youth are among the world’s most avid consumers and users of gaming consoles, email, mp3’s, video editing, and web blogs.

It’s not their lack of technological sophistication that keeps American teens from investing in souped-up cell phones; quite on the contrary, it’s their access to technologies that are superior for each of these tasks. They play games on a Playstation, listen to mp3’s on an iPod, send messages using a real keyboard, shoot pictures with a camera, and edit video on a computer. In America, it’s faster to find free Internet access or a WiFi hotspot for a laptop than it is to thumb through the menus on a GPRS cell phone. And a hell of a lot cheaper than purchasing a new cell phone every year.

It’s not that American kids don’t have cell phones. They do. It’s just that they don’t have the same need to use their phones for activities that are already being satisfied better elsewhere. After a couple of hours of free instant messaging on the computer every day after school, how much of an appetite could they possibly have for sms, photos or none, late into the night?

Even if they don’t prove to be eager handset upgraders, America’s youth will still rack up airtime on the cell phones they already have. They’re just going to do it the old fashioned way: talking.