Three Generations' View of Cell Phones

As part of our series this week on cell phones and how we use them, Chana Joffe-Walt visits with three generations of a Seattle family: a 14-year-old, a mom, and a grandmother.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

We've been talking about cell phones on the program, comparing their use in India, with their use here and examining the business and the technology of cell phones. And today, we'll take a listen at home. How do three generations of one family view cell phones and how do they use them.

Chana Joffe-Walt of member station KPLU introduces us to the Tokuda(ph) family in Seattle.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: When you're 14, there are rules to the cell phone starting with you need to have one.

Ms. MOLLY TOKUDA(ph): I think people should have cell phones.

JOFFE-WALT: Always answer that phone, take your phone everywhere, do not turn it off not even in the movies or while you're sleeping. And folks, please, know the correct phone medium for the kind of conversation you'd like to have.

Ms. M. TOKUDA: Like if you're shy about talking to them on the phone, you only type message. It's like an e-mail, but it's faster.

JOFFE-WALT: Most importantly, communicate constantly, where you are, what you're doing, who you talked to last, what you're wearing, what you'll wear tomorrow and what just happened 30 seconds earlier.

Ms. M. TOKUDA: That was fun. I mean, (unintelligible).

JOFFE-WALT: These rules belong to Molly Tokuda. I could strip down naked in front of Molly, run around her living room and her eyes would still remain on her orange Verizon Envy. She tells me with complete sincerity, but not her complete attention, that her phone is who she is. It's not that it's her link to the most important thing in her life or friends, it is her friend. They're each represented on her phone by a customized ringtone. When her best friend Claire(ph) calls, it's…

(Soundbite of song "Bubbly")

Ms. COLBIE CAILLAT (Singer): (Singing) It starts on my toes makes me crinkle my nose.

JOFFE-WALT: When it's Jasmine(ph)…

(Soundbite of music)

JOFFE-WALT: Et cetera, et cetera. Molly's mom Barbara has a cell phone, too.

Ms. BARBARA TOKUDA(ph): I don't know what a ringtone sounds like. I think Molly chose it. Do you want to hear it?

JOFFE-WALT: Yeah, I do.

Ms. B. TOKUDA: Okay. Let me see if I can call myself.

(Soundbite of cell phone ringtone)

JOFFE-WALT: Like her uber-connected, always-distracted daughter, Barbara also carries around a cell phone, a very similar model. But mother and daughter do not understand one another's behavior.

Ms. M. TOKUDA: She just uses her phone to talk. That's it. On her phone, there's only more like details to it, with text messaging, getting music, getting ringtones. She just uses it to call people.

Ms. B. TOKUDA: I have a need to communicate and to talk about everything, anything. Molly will ask a friend, well, you know, did you talk to so and so today? Oh, how many times? Or have you gotten any messages? And so they're updating each other on when the last phone call was to some other friend.

JOFFE-WALT: Barb says she uses her phone for updates too. She calls her husband to tell him what time she'll be home, she calls work to check in. But these, she says, are important calls. Tama(ph) Tokuda chuckles at that. Tama's Molly's grandmother, Barbara's mother-in-law. And just as Barbara rolls her eyes as Molly builds her thumb muscles texting, Grandma Tokuda shakes her head at Barb. She doesn't get mother or daughter and their constant chatter.

Ms. TAMA TOKUDA(ph): I can't imagine. To me, it's just another distraction. One phone is enough for me without a cell phone, my goodness.

JOFFE-WALT: Grandma Tokuda's kids bought her a phone a few Christmases ago. Barb says that thing never saw the light of day.

Ms. B. TOKUDA: It was connected, had a number. She didn't use it once.

Ms. T. TOKUDA: Why would I use it when I have a phone already? And I returned it to them, I said, I don't need this thing, you know?

JOFFE-WALT: Molly's hunched on the carpeted floor beside her grandmother texting - nonstop. The center of Molly's life, the way she connects with the world. Her grandma has no idea what it is.

Ms. M. TOKUDA: You know what's text messaging?

Ms. T. TOKUDA: Yes. I did meet her.

Ms. M. TOKUDA: Not Morgan(ph), like text messaging on your phone.

Ms. T. TOKUDA: Oh.

Ms. M. TOKUDA: Like text messaging. Like, you get writing?

Ms. T. TOKUDA: Oh, no.

Ms. M. TOKUDA: You don't know that?

Ms. T. TOKUDA: No. I don't know anything like that.

JOFFE-WALT: Molly and her grandma got their cell phones around the same time. And for the same reason, someone else decided it would make them both safer. Of course, then, they went into opposite directions from there. The Tokuda's cell phone bill just arrived the other day. Molly ran up a huge bill and fees in overtime minutes. As soon as Barbara saw that, she disconnected the service.

Ms. B. TOKUDA: This is my favorite sound, turning off the cell phone.

(Soundbite of cell phone tone)

JOFFE-WALT: So how did life change the day after your phone got shut off?

Ms. M. TOKUDA: I felt like I - there wasn't like a purpose to live.

JOFFE-WALT: Barb is not worried about Molly's survival. She says it may just be that a cell phone is a freedom Molly's too young to handle. Grandma Tokuda says a cell phone is a freedom, she doesn't want. And at the moment, neither grandma nor Molly have one.

For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt in Seattle.

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