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Misa Matsuda

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Thinking for Oneself about Social Interaction via Mobile Phones and the Internet

Misa Matsuda
Professor of Communications and Media Theory, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University

Do you know what the 15-minute rule is? Have you ever heard about the term Real?

Both of them are quite familiar to children, though they are unknown to adults-they are mobile phone jargon. This article discusses the effects of mobile phones on children's daily lives and on their relationships with friends, which are of increasing concern as mobile phones are becoming widespread among children, as well as countermeasures to these problems.

Mobile phone addiction!?

The 15-minute rule referenced above is a rule regarding mobile-phone text messaging adopted among junior high and high school students, under which a recipient should respond to an incoming text message within 15 minutes in order to avoid getting in trouble with his or her friends. Some groups adopt a 30-minute rule and others follow a 5-minute rule. In any case, students always keep their mobile phones on hand and constantly check for messages so as not to break the rule. Consequently, they do not seem to concentrate on their studies. They stay up late into the night because they can't stop text messaging, so they look sleepy the next morning. Many parents are anxious about such a lifestyle-in which their children seem to be addicted to mobile phones.

Mobile phone addiction is caused not only by text messaging; the use of community sites is also a major contributing factor. In the Mobage-town (mobile game town), which is a popular social networking service (SNS) site for free-of-charge games, many people also enjoy using the diary and community features. Similarly, the self introduction site Prof allows users to easily post their own pictures and profiles on the Internet, and even to link to their friends' Profs. People do not continue to use the Profs that they initially create, however. Instead, they frequently change their profiles to represent their self today or their self at the moment. Real refers to using blogs such as Twitter and is gaining in popularity mainly among junior high and high school students. This is why students constantly need to fiddle with their mobile phones.

Just as with the frequent exchange of mobile-phone text messages, the point of these sites is to communicate with friends. In other words, mobile phone addiction is associated with the particular ways of establishing friendships that children engage in during puberty. In fact, students who are mobile phone addicts in junior high or high school generally get rid of the addiction naturally when they enter university. University students around me fondly remember how they "used to keep their mobile phone on hand even in the bathroom." Thus, we could conclude that "mobile phone addiction is not a big problem in the long run." Since it may have an adverse impact on our daily lives, however, we cannot afford to wait and see how things go any longer.

Moreover, because the above sites are used for communication with friends, they can also lead to cyber-bullying. The so-called School Ura-Sites-school specific sites unofficially set up by students at a given school-that were in the headlines a little while ago are notorious for the prevalence of aspersions and bullying that appear there. Unlike face-to-face bullying, cyber-bullying is not limited to the physical location where students meet, and victims cannot escape from being bullied 24 hours a day. Messages and videos posted on the Internet remain there indefinitely. To make matters worse, since the bullying occurs within the cyber arena, it is difficult for parents and teachers to notice that bullying is happening and take prompt countermeasures against it.

Issues concerning countermeasures against mobile phone and Internet troubles

The question, then, is what must be done.

Although it is simple, I think that the only solution is for children themselves to learn how to interact using the Internet. Most of the issues known as mobile phone troubles are associated with the Internet rather than with mobile phone calls. The problems in question are unique to Internet use via the mobile phones that children always have with them-as opposed to Internet use via computers at home or at school-so we should discuss social interaction in this particular type of Internet environment.

As for the relationship between children and the Internet, the Detrimental Website Regulation Act came into effect in 2008 to oblige mobile phone carriers to provide filtering services to block access to detrimental information. The use of such filtering services can indeed reduce children's exposure to adults who intend to commit malicious acts such as fraud and soliciting prostitution.

Such filtering services do not mitigate trouble among friends, however, and children inevitably access the Internet without filters when they grow up. Unfortunately, the assumption that grownups have acquired enough judgment to stay out of trouble is doubtful, and in fact, even adults often get involved in cyber-trouble at present. In effect, restricting or prohibiting children from accessing the Internet with their mobile phones is really just delaying the problem.

Children should think for themselves

First of all, it is important for parents and teachers to teach children basic information about mobile phones and the Internet including etiquette in the Internet space (typically called netiquette), examples of cybercrimes, and the characteristics of various media. Since the basics of social interaction using mobile phones and the Internet have been already organized, they can be easily taught. Next, it is effective to have children think for themselves about actual ways of interacting with mobile phones and the Internet according to their own usage and lifestyles. This is important because usage by adults and usage by children are very different, even when they use the same mobile phones or websites. The 15-minute rule and Real are examples of children's social interaction using mobile phones. Naturally adults can identify neither the actual conditions troubling children nor their countermeasures.

Additionally, adults should teach the basics so that children can think for themselves accordingly, and adults should in turn support children in the process. Engaging in this sequence encourages children to consider ways of interacting using mobile phones and the Internet and to regard these as their own issues. Since it is inevitable that children will live in the fast-changing Internet society going forward, relying on the knowledge they are taught and having a passive attitude will not be enough. Children must cultivate the attitude of thinking for themselves based on their own experience.

Elementary school children today have more opportunities to access the Internet. If children take an interest, their teachers and parents should help them consider ways of interacting with mobile phones and the Internet, though this may be a rather troublesome task. I myself recognize this as I look at my son, who is entering puberty, and who often rebels against me.

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Misa Matsuda
Professor of Communications and Media Theory, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
The author was born in Hyogo prefecture in 1968. She graduated with an undergraduate degree from the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo in 1991 and left the doctoral course in the Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology there in 1996. After working as an assistant in the Institute of Social Science at the University of Tokyo, as a full-time lecturer in the Faculty of Information and Communications at Bunkyo University, and as an associate professor in the Faculty of Letters at Chuo University, she took up her current post in 2008. She is a co-author of works including Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life (MIT Press, 2005) and An Introduction to the Study Mobile Phones (Yuhikaku Publishing Co., Ltd, 2002). Professor Matsuda studies the relationships between media and society from a dynamic perspective, rather than from the deterministic perspective which holds that the media changes society.