MIAMI — The tiny box clipped to the teenage girl's pants begins to chime. Jeannette Soto smiles at the digital display's three numbers: 45-56-88. Translation: Good night. Sweet dreams. Hugs and kisses.
The message, from her fellow high schooler Christine, contains a precious missive from one best friend to another. It also holds the key to the youth culture spawned by today's techy revolution.
At first, beepers were used by doctors, stockbrokers, even drug dealers. Then busy parents began using them to keep up with the family.
Now they've become a staple with teenagers, the tech generation's response to something common to all kids - a passionate need to talk to one another.
Today's grownups might have passed notes and whispered in class. Modern kids spend hours in online chat rooms, at fast-food restaurants - and using beepers.
While some adults are suspicious of the noisy plastic boxes, others see them as creative tools. With beepers "kids create their own music, their own poetry, their own styles of being human beings," says Myron Orleans, a sociology professor at California State University-Fullerton who studies technology's impact on children.
In digital slang, 423 means "Call me now;" 00100 means "I feel very alone;" 007 means "I have a secret."
In beeper code, 1040 means "You owe me big time;" 121 means "I need to talk to you alone;" 50-50 means "It doesn't matter to me. What you do want to do?"
Since 1992, the use of pagers has doubled in the US. Forty million Americans own a pager today and 60 million are expected to have one by 2002, according to a survey by the biggest pager manufacturer, Motorola. Today 14 percent of teenagers own a beeper, compared with 7 percent two years ago.
"The one thing a teenager doesn't want is to be by himself," says Ayo Harrington, president of the New York City Parents Association whose own teenager carries a beeper.
In schools across the nation, beepers are officially banned, along with cellular phones and weapons. But officials concede cracking down on beepers isn't easy.
Imagine getting rid of every beeper at Braddock Senior High in Miami, America's second-largest school, with 5,000 kids. "You're not talking about 10 beepers. You're talking about 2,000 beepers," says Assistant Principal Larene Lantz.
She assumes that students have pagers, but adds that most set theirs on vibrate mode, so as not to disturb classes. "It becomes a matter of 'We don't want to hear it.' "
Sleeping with a beeper
Try telling Maria Velez she needs to surrender her beepers. She will laugh. "It's like your earrings, you never take it off," says the 16 year old.
It's Friday afternoon in a small park near Lincoln Road, Miami Beach's trendy neighborhood.
The talk among Maria's friends, who all go to Miami Beach High School, is about the evening's plans. Maria is in the latest getup: Her vintage look includes wide-legged jeans that are ripped at the bottom and a black T-shirt with "Zero" on it - from the band Smashing Pumpkins.
Of course, the flashy purple box clipped onto her leather belt is part of her attire.
"If I go out and I forget my beeper, I feel empty," Maria says.
Not far away, beeper boutiques have become commonplace - Beeperia, Beeper Mania, and Beeper World.
Especially hot these days are the fluorescent beepers, as well as accessories that help teens show off their beepers - colored bungee-like cords and gold chains.
Across America, some bookstores sell guidebooks to beeper codes. To further tap into the burgeoning market of kids, Dallas-based Page-Mart, the one of the biggest dealers, is marketing beepers in 7-Elevens.
Maria shows off the series of messages saved on her pager. "03" is the code for Bobby, Maria's boyfriend. "123" means "I miss you." And "143" means "I love you." He's been beeping her day and all night.
"We need the beepers," says Angela Vergara, sporting an army jacket and leather boots.
In fact, Maria sleeps with her beeper.
"Sometimes, I beep her at 3 a.m., and I say, 'I can't sleep,' " says Angela about Maria, her best friend. "You can't call her house at that time."
The girls' conversation is suddenly interrupted. Suddenly, a teen with furious eyes comes barging in. It's Bobby, Maria's boyfriend.
"Will you explain why you didn't beep me yesterday?" Bobby fires at her. Maria's eyes drop in embarrassment. "I'm really sorry," she says. "I had trouble at home."
That's the end of the conversation. "Beep me later," says the young man before zooming off in his car.
The little wireless gadget Maria cannot get separated from had turned against her.
Empowering and imprisoning
Some say the encounter between Bobby and Maria epitomizes what's wrong with being subject to the beep of beepers.
Experts say the instant gratification brought by beepers can enslave teens. "It's like, 'I want you right now,' " says Peter Crabb, a professor of psychology at Penn State University who studies technology's impact on behavior. "It makes it OK to interrupt whatever's going on."
Crabb says paging companies are too aggressive in luring children into buying pagers by promising them freedom.
A beeper can cost $60 and monthly fees average between $10 and $50. Studies show parents usually foot the bill.
In Miami Beach, Angela insists beepers are an essential part of her life. And yet, she got rid of hers last month. She says her mom was beeping her too often - especially if she was out late at night.
She says her boyfriend's beeps also began annoying her. "He'd call me all the time," she says, "every day, every hour, every minute."