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Easy Cell
Not too long ago, our kids waited for their telephones to ring. No more.

There I was, draped across a white French Provincial-style bed strewn with stuffed animals, my head dangling over the side with my ear attached to the receiver of a pink princess phone. With the line stretched across the floor I spoke, ignoring my father as he bellowed, “Get off the phone!”

I waited for that phone to ring more than I’d like to admit. Not too long ago, we all waited for phones to ring. Not today. College students, high schoolers and pre-teens don’t wait anymore. Their phones vibrate and announce callers through a multitude of personalized ring tones. Their owners are constantly connected, wherever they may be, at any time of day.

It’s not a surprise to this mother that half the young people in America carry cell phones, with that moving toward 90 percent for high school seniors. The instant connections have made for a new dating dance. Cell phones, Instant Messaging and text messaging take courting in ways that we could never have imagined while we were listening to cassette tapes on “portable” (ha!) boom boxes. Parents say kids don’t date anymore, that they don’t send love letters or call on the phone. When do they even talk to one another?

Just a couple of years ago, a boy got up the courage to call someone he had a crush on. Anxious over the response he’d get—and that his voice would register in the right octave when he needed it to—Jimmy would nervously pick up the phone and say, “Hello, Mr. Miller. This is Jim Hinkleman. Is Carly at home?”

These days, IM is the teen communication mode of choice. One girl I know has 200 friends on her “buddy list,” which she has broken down into various friend groups. She chats each night, instant messaging to a group that could contain up to 25 buddies. “There are people I talk to online that I probably wouldn’t have in person—and there are people that I only talk to online,” she confesses. “You can sorta tell if someone might be interested in you online because of stuff they say. And then you can see them in school and pick up the conversation. From there, you could decide to go out in a group, and then you could give him your cell phone number—if he doesn’t have it already.”

Once a relationship is established, the communication turns 24/7. As parents, we buy cell phones to be used for emergencies. But what we didn’t realize is that, in the complex, high-stakes times of teen socialization, every event can seem like an emergency. Young couples can text message each other at school (possibly 50 times a day), IM each other during the afternoon and early evening (presumably while doing homework) and talk in their bedrooms at night. And in the morning, that boyfriend or girlfriend might be the voice that wakes them up to start the day.

Constant connection—and you’d think instant intimacy would be easy. It’s all very convenient for people you already know, but what if you’ve never met? The kids I know say all the electronic trappings can actually make it harder to feel comfortable in person.

So could it be that there’s still a nervous waiting game? Most teens have seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite. Even this geek archetype demonstrated personal “skills with women” when he drew a portrait of a girl and gave it to her as a way of asking her to a dance. His friend, Pedro, actually baked a girl a cake.

Well, that was a movie—and I’m somebody’s mother. And between the online gossiping, deception and (God forbid) stalking, there’s plenty to worry about. But at least there’s no more waiting by the phone. Instead, they’re all out there crisscrossing campuses and mall parking lots with cell phones pressed to their faces, dancing cheek to cheek.

Swarthmore-based writer Nancy Savoth is the mother of three boys—and two of them have cell phones.