Mobile Privacy

I think it’s interesting to base an entire body of research on the technological consumption of a population (teenagers) so heavily affected by authoritative figures (their parents). Teen tech consumption is based entirely on their parents’ involvement and support, usually in a financial sense (e.g., purchasing cellphone plans, buying a home computer, etc.). The authors also took some liberties in the study design, using data from privileged, early-adoption populations living in areas with high tech influences (e.g., Silicon Valley) and higher-than-average household incomes. I’d be curious to see a similar study play out with another, less skewed, population.

There is a brief comment in the beginning of the Grinter piece about early opinions about technology.

…in 1929, in their study of Middletown, the Lynds reported that the telephone and the depersonalized communications it offered were in part responsible for the increased sexual liberation of teenagers

At it’s core, this is not a unique or profound claim. This is an evolved version of the “Back in my day, children respected their elders” argument – everyone thinks their generation was more wholesome, respectful, and positive than later generations. However, there is something interesting that occurs with the introduction of technologies that can help parse one’s time and social opportunities; there are several implications here. I first thought about the possibility that these technologies increase teenage communication, which leads to more sexual liberation, assuming that more opportunities to communicate lead to more opportunities to establish relationships (romantic or otherwise).

Though, I think the bigger question is what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Before technology, when all relationships were established with good old face-to-face time, it was arguably easy to understand how social groups were constructed. Everyone knows your friends because you eat lunch together every day. With the introduction of landlines, I imagine it was simpler to maintain existing relationships and easier to establish new relationships in private. Talking on the phone with a new classmate each evening is a private way to establish a relationship. Of course, this action is visible to your immediate family and those sharing the landline which leads to, as Srivastava points out, parents “knowing” their children’s friends. Then came SMS and IM technologies. Now, people can maintain existing relationships, establish new relationships and talk to complete strangers with less outside visibility. Those in your immediate vicinity may identify that you’re communicating with someone (though Grinter mentions some stealth texting practices) without identifying the person outright.

Back to my original question: what happens when communication becomes easier and more discrete without trading off authenticity? Does it lead to a more trusting society, because you can “meet” new people and develop strong bonds? Does it lead to a less trusting society, because you don’t have the benefit of the context that face-to-face communication offers? I think the answer is that it depends. Early-adopting teenagers forged a way for these technologies to leverage freedom, communicate social popularity, and control their availability; a fact that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Referencing recent class discussions, I think it is increasingly important for technology designers to consider these factors as they’re creating the next big things. I mean, did cellphone manufacturers intend to create an innately flakier society that will use SMS to bail on plans at the last minute? Probably not, but they may have intended to make it easier to tell someone when you’re running 15 minutes late.

Of course, I wonder how technology has changed or evolved since these times. Both of these papers were written in the mid-2000s (2005 and 2006), with the latter assessing mobile usage data collected in 2000. What would these authors say about the upcoming technologies teens are using today? How does Yik Yak’s anonymous communication change the social interactions of knowing the people you’re communicating with? How does Tinder evolve the concept of an extensive buddy list, when the people in your address book are less tied to shared experiences and may be one-off contacts?


Grinter, R.E., Palen, L., and Eldridge, M. Chatting with teenagers. ACM Trans. Comput.-Hum. Interact. 13, 4 (2006), 423–447.

Srivastava, L. Mobile phones and the evolution of social behaviour. Behaviour & Information Technology 24, 2 (2005), 111.