Parental anxieties in a cellular age

Calling your kids' cellphones every five minutes won't save them from growing up.

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Let's get one thing straight about the Great New York Cellphone War: It's not about "safety." It's about anxiety.

Last month, New York officials stepped up their efforts to bar students from carrying cellphones into public schools. In a stubborn defense of the policy, Mayor Michael Bloomberg claimed that the phones promote gang activity. Parents responded with outrage and promises of civil disobedience, arguing that their kids need cellphones to contact them in case of an emergency.

They're both right, up to a point. Yes, some kids have used cellphones to arrange drug deals and gang rumbles; others have used the phones to call Mom or Dad when they feel unwell, lost, or just plain scared. But spend five minutes listening to teenagers mumble with their parents on the phone, and you'll notice one very obvious point: The kids aren't scared - their parents are.

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"Yeah, Mom, I'm fine. Really."

"Dad, just chill, OK? I'll be home soon."

As a parent of someone who is about to turn 13, I can well understand the impulse to "stay connected" with our kids - and to keep them safe. But as a historian and an educator, I'm deeply troubled by it. By tethering our children to us, I worry, we're not letting them grow up on their own. And we're foisting our worries on them, in ways that will haunt them well into adulthood.

For the past 100 years, of course, parents have fretted about their teenagers. Reports of automobile "make-out" parties shocked readers in the 1920s, when middle-class youths first gained access to cars. In the 1950s, comic books and rock 'n' roll sparked new anxieties about juvenile delinquency and promiscuity. The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the rise of adolescent drug culture, while the 1980s brought AIDS. More recent fears have focused upon youth violence and its glorification in rap music.

Until the past few years, however, we let our children navigate these dangers by themselves. We didn't have a choice. "Going out" meant going away - away from the purview of Mom and Dad, at least for a few hours. We always had to know where you were going, of course; and if something went wrong, you were supposed to call. But you weren't leashed to us, 24/7, in a wireless web of parental surveillance.

And make no mistake: Cellphones are a mechanism of surveillance. That's why several carriers are now offering phones with a built-in global positioning system, which lets parents track their kids' exact location until they get home.

Why do we need all of this electronic scrutiny and hand-holding? Ask an American mother, and she'll tell you that it's a jungle out there: There are drugs, there's sex, there's crime. But we've always had those dangers, and many of them - especially drugs and crime - were more acute when Mom herself was growing up. But somehow, she managed to make it through.

How will our own children do the same thing, when we're perched over them like frightened vultures? When they're little, we schedule "play dates" for them; it's too "dangerous," too unstructured, to send them off to a park or ballfield by themselves. As they get older, they rarely walk or bicycle anywhere; they might get hit by a car, and did you hear about that kid who was abducted last week? And when they're finally teenagers, old enough to go out on their own, we equip them with cellphones so they can call us at any time - and relieve our own anxieties.

No wonder so many young people are getting anxious themselves. At college counseling centers, anxiety has now overtaken relationship issues as the major reason students seek help. According to the University of Michigan Depression Center, 15 percent of America's undergraduates suffer from an anxiety-related disorder.

We can't blame that on cellphones, of course. The blame could lie, at least in part, with worried parents who use their cellphones to visit their own worries on their kids. In a famous study of babies with high-strung temperaments, the Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan found that the kids were normal by age 2 if their parents let them find comfort on their own. But if the parents hovered, responding to every whimper and cry, the children remained highly anxious.

So maybe it's time for all of us - New York's mayor, the schools, and most of all the parents - to back off a bit. Of course the kids should be allowed to carry cellphones; at this late hour, there's really no way we can stop them. But we can and should stop calling them, at all hours, simply to make sure they're alive. Just chill, Mom and Dad, OK? They'll be home soon.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."

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