Reach Out and Beep Someone

`KEEP in touch'' may be one of the most popular expressions around. Among friends, it can be casual to the point of cliche. Within families, it serves as the most urgent of appeals.

Now teenagers are giving new meaning to the phrase. The latest fashion statement for the well-outfitted adolescent has nothing to do with wearing the right brand of jeans or the latest style in sneakers. It's an electronic beeper, fastened to a belt or purse, guaranteed to keep a student only a beep-beep away from friends, current heartthrobs, and even parents.

Paging companies and retail stores report that teenagers now account for 20 percent of beeper sales. This youthful market, they say, is growing twice as fast as the business-user market. At $100 or more for a beeper and $10 to $12 a month for service, no one can pretend that talk is cheap. But for teenagers - or their parents - willing to pay the price, the old phone company slogan, ``Let your fingers do the walking,'' is giving way to a new one: ``Let your beeper do the talking.''

Not surprisingly, some schools are banning beepers from classrooms on grounds that they're distracting. The students' response? Simple. Just switch from the beeper mode to the vibration mode. There's more than one way to keep in touch.

Although the device functions primarily as a teenage status symbol, it also serves a practical purpose. In an era when families scatter early in the morning and don't regroup until evening, the beeper offers a reassuring electronic tether, linking the busy schedules of both generations.

One of the largest paging companies, Pagenet, has devised a marketing banner called Family Network. The company hopes to attract parents eager to keep in touch with day-care centers, latchkey children, and of course teens.

Even without state-of-the-art electronics, we who do our part to keep the telephone company solvent, frequently dialing the distant area codes of scattered family members, can identify with a needlepoint canvas bearing the heartfelt message: ``Call your mother. She worries.'' The advice is as applicable to middle-aged offspring as it is to young children and teens.

Those who still live in the electronic dark ages - no beeper, no car telephone, no fax - sometimes laugh at the seeming self-importance of people who are never out of touch, who walk down the street talking on a cellular phone or whiz along the freeway with one hand on the phone, one pinky on the steering wheel. What, the skeptics wonder, is so important about these calls that they must take place right here, right now?

They could also raise another point: Easier communication doesn't necessarily guarantee fuller disclosure. Today's hip teenagers with beepers may still resort to the same kind of abbreviated conversation with their parents that Robert P. Smith perfectly captured in his popular book title of the 1950s: ``Where Did You Go? `Out.' What Did You Do? `Nothing.' ''

And as a measure of the difficulty even adults have in communicating with one another, electronically or otherwise, just check the bestseller list, where Deborah Tannen's book ``You Just Don't Understand,'' a study of the different language of men and women, has spent 119 weeks.

Yet those who do take steps to keep in touch can find that the latest electronic ties that bind can open new worlds. On-line computer services now serve as a global bulletin board, linking strangers with common interests and allowing them to compare notes on everything from single-parenthood to Shakespeare, hobbies to jobs.

It's popular to deplore the decline and fall of letter-writing and conversation - the traditional ways of connecting one mind and heart to another. It's equally popular to dismiss electronic gadgets as dehumanizing - keeping people apart with all those winking screens, keyboards, and modems rather than bringing them together. But from a handwritten letter or face-to-face conversation to a beep or an E-mail message, the same ancient process is going on, and for the same reasons.

In the 1800s Nathaniel Hawthorne noted the irresistible urge to link up the ``magnetic chain of humanity.'' Make that the electronic chain of humanity and Hawthorne could be describing the 1990s.

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