Talking up a storm. Controversy swirls around teen talk lines

``I'll get some beer and you can borrow your mom's car and come over.'' (male) ``Uhhh, I think I'd better hang up now.'' (female)

``Hey, come on, honey. I mean, this is an elemental letdown.'' (male)

(Click)

This is an example of the kind of conversation overheard on a phone entertainment line. While many of the calls aren't this sinister (some are much worse), the introduction of these phone services to the market has produced complaints from irate parents about profanity, sexual propositioning, and drug dealing - as well as high costs.

The entertainment lines are basically social conference calls, special numbers that one can call to get hooked up with between four and 10 other people.

They got started started in Brazil about seven years ago, after Luiz Bravo, an entrepreneur, noticed that his ``dial-a-joke'' callers enjoyed talking to other callers when the phone lines crossed. So he started a company, TeleFriend, to enable them to gab their hearts out. The service is up to its billionth call, and 65 cities in Brazil are on line. Bravo later helped start up British Telecom, and more entertainment lines, in England.

They hit the United States about a year ago. Bravo and other investors started TeleFriend in Cambridge, Mass., which joined Phone-A-Friend and Talkabout. The services have multiplied like rabbits in most major cities. They're marketing themselves ferociously, competing for the collective ear of the nation, some aimed at adults, some at teens.

The lines are part of the telephone industry's 976 tariff - which embraces informational services such as weather, stock market, and sports reports, as well as the more questionable ``dial-a-porn'' services. Independent carriers, which set the rates, provide the services. They lease lines and billing services from regional Bell holding companies.

Complaints rose from the very inception about unsavory conversations, which have been a major problem on both adult and teen lines. Mountain Bell terminated its own entertainment line, called Openline, following public outcry over sexual propositioning, profanity, and drug dealing. Then Mountain Bell leased its lines to Scoopline, in Albuquerque, N.M. The same problems arose, and Mountain Bell shut that down, too, allowing it to resume service only after it had gotten 24-hour monitors on the line.

``What we were finding was that teens would get on the adult line and say they were adults and vice-versa,'' says Louis Belmont, spokesman for Mountain Bell Telephone in Albuquerque. ``One man agreed to meet a teen at a pizza parlor and he brought his own liquor.''

Renz Jennings, chairman of the Arizona Corporation Commission, a state utility regulatory commission, has received a barrage of calls from irate parents. Those calls diminished after monitors were initiated, but are still coming in.

``There are all kinds of First Amendment questions involved here,'' he says, ``but on a visceral level I find it disgusting that perverts are getting their kicks by talking to young innocent kids, and preying on the loneliness and sadness of a vulnerable community.''

Many of the regional holding companies have, to a certain extent, cleaned up their act, requiring a recorded message at the beginning warning callers to watch their language. Many require monitors, or moderators, to put a lid on profanity and propositions. But the moderators do a high-speed juggling act: they're there primarily to help callers have a good time, so they also keep flagging conversations going, discourage blasting radios and touch-tone symphonies, as well as read the riot act to profane callers or even pull the plug.

With the volume of calls coming in, moderators can only listen in on a fraction of the conversations. TeleFriend had only two moderators trying to keep tabs on hundreds of calls at a peak time of day.

``It's random checking,'' concedes Mountain Bell's corporate spokesman Blair Johnson. ``All we're asking is for them to be responsible.''

Some carriers have come up with ways of dealing with the problems: not allowing the exchange of personal information on the teen line, or ``bridging'' two callers to a private line to exchange phone numbers, only permitting the man's number to be given out. At Boston's Talkabout teen line, if callers want to meet, moderators tell them to do so in public places and to bring friends.

Phone-A-Friend, TeleFriend, and Scoopline allow callers who want to exchange phone numbers to move to a private line, so that other callers won't hear the numbers being passed out. ``You never know who's listening,'' says Betsy Superfon, vice-president of Ultraphone, the carrier for Scoopline.

Cost has been another big problem with the lines. Talking (or listening) on party lines ain't cheap. In Boston it's 20 cents for the first minute, 10 for each additional. Scoopline, in other cities, is 95 cents the first minute, and 45 each additional. And enormous bills rung up by unsuspecting teens have been reported. That's gotten the carriers into trouble. Mountain Bell closed down Scoopline in Utah until its carrier, Ultraphone, agreed to include a recording that would warn users of the fees before they started talking. Now most of the services have a similar recording.

But this is a product largely aimed at children, and the advertising may not be adequate. A 15-year old boy in Oakland, Calif., recently ran up a $5,312.44 bill on his father's line. His father took on three jobs to pay the tab, and his service was disconnected. Pacific Bell has a policy of forgiveness for the first time a minor abuses it, but representatives initially neglected to tell the family. Massachusetts officials will hold public hearings later this week to discuss various issues as the forgiveness policy, says Marsha Molay, assistant to the commission. In Arizona, customers can now pay to prevent access to the lines.

Teen talk line officials argue that the kids who use them basically just want to talk; that the conversations range from sports to school to parents to fashion. And there is a positive potential for kids to make friends with others outside their own ethnic background, clique, or community. Scoopline even has a service out of Seattle that hooks up callers from all over the US and Europe.

Most of what this reporter heard, on both teen and adult lines, was people trying to meet each other. Any kind of serious conversation seemed difficult with so many people on the phone. The more aggressive ones hogged the line. One girl kept plaintively asking if Josh was still on the line, but the other kids wouldn't stop talking long enough to let her find out.

``Some customers say that on the adult line, people like it as an alternative to the bar scene,'' says Belmont. ``We've had people tell us they've found it a good way to meet people in a non-threatening way.''

Still, one teen from a Boston suburb has mixed feelings about the services: ``I'm not going to do it anymore; not after the bill came. You don't talk about anything significant, and you ask yourself, `Why did I pay money for this?' If they were free I'd talk all the time. but they're not. It's like a CB radio for rich kids.''

Tips to parents Parents wanting to make sure an entertainment line is professionally run can take the following steps:

Listen to a few conversations; get a feel for the tone.

See how often the moderator is on and how well he or she is handling the calls.

See if the line has a recording stating rates and spelling out rules: keep it clean, and don't give out last names or phone numbers.

What is the policy on private conversations? If you don't feel comfortable having your teen moved to a separate line for a private conversation with a stranger, don't use that service.

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