Cell phone use huge with students; Many prefer texting to conversations.
WESTBORO - A new survey of young adolescents shows that they are logging on to social networking sites and using their cell phones more than ever.
Only 39 of 250 eighth-graders in Westboro who responded to a voluntary, anonymous poll reported not having a cell phone.
That came as a surprise to Kathy Martin, director of technology for Westboro Public Schools. "They prefer to text now than to have conversations."
Parents are becoming more Internet-savvy she said, but stressed that they must talk to their children to make sure they're safe.
Ms. Martin said the results of the survey of sixth- and eighth-graders in Westboro reflect national trends. Last year, the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 71 percent of youngsters ages 12 to 17 had their own cell phones.
A 2007 Pew report characterized 28 percent of the teen population as "super communicators" who are frequent and proficient users of phones, text and instant messaging, social networking sites and - sparingly - e-mail.
Since those studies were done, technology has advanced - and teens are using it more.
In the Westboro survey this year, compared to a survey of seventh- and eighth-graders done three years ago, there were some noticeable differences.
In 2006, 47 percent of students polled said they used instant messaging; this year 84 percent said they do. In just three years, the definition of instant messaging has changed to encompass texting on cell phones as well as on the Internet.
More than 60 percent of eighth-graders said they share photos on their cell phones, and more than 33 percent reported taking someone's picture without that person's knowledge.
School administrators and parents are concerned that prolific teen texters will face cyberbullying. Researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College say cyberbullying, which includes mean behavior conveyed through cell phones as well as the Internet, is on the rise. A recent study found that 63 percent of kids say they've been bullied online.
It's an issue to which Worcester District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. pays attention. His office works to make sure parents and kids are aware of bullying and the dangers that come with using technology. The risks of using cell phones and using the Internet are inevitably entwined, because so many cell phones have direct Internet access.
"It becomes an elevated form of bullying and it can devastate kids," Mr. Early said of cruel text messages. "One kid said, `I would rather take a physical beating, because I know there's a start and an end to it.'"
"When it's written down, it lasts forever," Mr. Early said.
This is a problem in Worcester, said Robert F. Pezzella, Worcester public schools' executive assistant to the superintendent for school safety and violence prevention. He said students sometimes send threats to each other in text messages, which can lead to physical fights. Similar threats are sometimes made on social networking Web sites, like MySpace and Facebook, he said, and police have been called to schools many times to mediate conflicts that started in cyberspace.
"There's an increase in text messaging going on," he said. "This is a problem we encounter. ... Students tend to become very loose in their text messaging. Sometimes these threats that are happening as a result of text messaging carry into school the next day."
Mr. Pezzella estimates that at least half of Worcester high school students carry their own cell phones.
"Definitely more and more middle school students have cell phones," he added. Which allows them to communicate more with their parents - but also with their peers.
"Whether you're in the sixth grade or ninth grade or a senior in high school, having cell phones in a school environment can definitely cause problems ... including cheating," Mr. Pezzella said, though incidents of cheating are rare.
As is the norm, students in Westboro and Worcester are not allowed to use their cell phones during the school day.
The Westboro survey also asked students about their Internet use. More kids also are using computers in nonpublic places, according to the survey. Instead of using computers in the kitchen or family room of their home, they are using them in their bedrooms or away from home. Nearly half of the eighth-graders polled said they have a computer that is their own.
Eighteen eighth-graders said an online stranger asked to meet them; three students said they met the person in a "safe place"; one student said they met the person without their parents knowing.
One of the better trends, according to the survey, is that kids are adding fewer names to their online buddy lists. That may be a sign that they don't blindly accept every buddy request they get, possibly from strangers, Ms. Martin said.
"I do think students are becoming more savvy. What they might not be understanding is you really can't delete (on the Internet)."
The survey was administered online during class time this month. Of 286 sixth-graders in Westboro, only 142 responded; 250 of 266 eighth-graders responded.
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ART: PHOTO; CHART
CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Jaz Young, 9, of Charlotte, N.C., videotapes the inauguration ceremony of Barack Obama on his cell phone in this Jan. 20 file photo. (CHART) Middle school computer and phone usage
PHOTOG: (PHOTO) File Photo/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS (CHART) T&G Staff/DON LANDGREN JR.