Talking BlackBerry Encyclopedia
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| | [2006-12-08] BlackBerry Orphans
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The growing use of email gadgets is spawning a generation of resentful children. A look at furtive thumb-typers, the signs of compulsive use and how kids are fighting back.
By KATHERINE ROSMAN
December 8, 2006; Page W1, The Wall Street Journal
There is a new member of the family, and, like all new siblings, this one is getting a disproportionate amount of attention, resulting in jealousy, tantrums, even trips to the therapist.
It's the BlackBerry.
As hand-held email devices proliferate, they are having an unexpected impact on family dynamics: Parents and their children are swapping roles. Like a bunch of teenagers, some parents are routinely lying to their kids, sneaking around the house to covertly check their emails and disobeying house rules established to minimize compulsive typing. The refusal of parents to follow a few simple rules is pushing some children to the brink. They are fearful that parents will be distracted by emails while driving, concerned about Mom and Dad's shortening attention spans and exasperated by their parents' obsession with their gadgets. Bob Ledbetter III, a third-grader in Rome, Ga., says he tries to tell his father to put the BlackBerry down, but can't even get his attention. "Sometimes I think he's deaf," says the 9-year-old.
The household tension comes as gadgets like BlackBerrys and Treos -- once primarily tools for investment bankers and lawyers -- have entered the pantheon of devices, including the TV, the personal computer and the cellphone, that have forcefully inserted themselves into the American home. Research In Motion, the maker of BlackBerry, logged 6.2 million subscribers at the end of the second quarter this year, up from 3.65 million in the same period last year. Palm sold 569,000 Treos in the first quarter this year, up 21% from the same quarter the previous year. The problem has only gotten worse as more devices combine phone and email. Since people rarely leave home without a cellphone, even events that were once BlackBerry-free are now susceptible to office email.
The gadgets are recognizable to young children. A few parents say "BlackBerry" is in their toddlers' early vocabulary. Lucas Ellin, a Los Angeles 5-year-old, pretends he has his own, parading around the house with a small toy in his hand while shrieking, "Look, Mommy, it's my BlackBerry!" Earlier this fall, Novelty Inc., a manufacturer in Greenfield, Ind., unveiled its "My Very Own Berry Assistant" toy, available at convenience stores and gas stations under a sign reading, "Just like Dad and Mom's." The company expects to sell nearly 100,000 units before the end of the year.
In Austin, Texas, Hohlt Pecore, 7, and his sister, Elsa, 4, have complicated relationships with their mother's BlackBerry. "I feel very annoyed," says Hohlt. "She's always concentrating on that blasted thing." (Hohlt says he picked up the word "blasted" from the film "Pirates of the Caribbean.")
Elsa has hidden the BlackBerry on occasion -- Hohlt says she tried to flush it down the toilet last year. Their mother, Elizabeth Pecore, who co-owns a specialty grocery store, denies the incident. But Elsa also seems to recognize that it brings her mom comfort, not unlike a pacifier or security blanket. Recently, seeing her mom slumped on the couch after work, Elsa fished the BlackBerry from her mother's purse and brought it to her. "Mommy," she asked, "will this make you feel better?"
Emma Colonna wishes her parents would behave, at least when they're out in public. The ninth-grade student in Port Washington, N.Y., says she has caught her parents typing emails on their Treos during her eighth-grade awards ceremony, at dinner and in darkened movie theaters. "During my dance recital, I'm 99% sure they were emailing except while I was on stage," she says. "I think that's kind of rude."
Emma, 14, also identifies with adults who wish their kids spent less time playing videogames. "At my student orientation for high school, my mom was playing solitaire," she says. "She has a bad attention span." Her mother, Barbara Chang, the chief executive of a nonprofit group, says, "It's become this crutch."
Safety is another issue. Will Singletary, a 9-year-old in Atlanta, doesn't approve of his dad's proclivity for typing while driving. "It makes me worried he's going to crash," he says. "He only looks up a few times." His dad, private banker Ross Singletary, calls it "a legit concern." He adds: "Some emails are important enough to look at en route."
Some mental-health professionals report that the intrusion of mobile email gadgets and wireless technology into family life is a growing topic of discussion in therapy. They have specific tips for dealing with the problem, like putting the device in a drawer during a set time period every day. "A lot of kids are upset by it," says Geraldine Kerr, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Morristown, N.J. She says parents need to recognize that some situations require undivided attention. When you shut off the device, she says, "You're communicating nonverbally that 'you matter and what's important to you is important to me.' "
Still, like teenagers sneaking cigarettes behind school, parents are secretly rebelling against the rules. The children of one New Jersey executive mandate that their mom ignore her mobile email from dinnertime until their bedtime. To get around their dictates, the mother hides the gadget in the bathroom, where she makes frequent trips before, during and after dinner. The kids "think I have a small bladder," she says. She declined to be named because she's afraid her 12- and 13-year-old children might discover her secret.
Even in the context of close relationships, the issue is thorny. Christina Huffington, 17 years old and the older daughter of the Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington, introduced the topic of her mom's constant emailing during a session with the family therapist. Her mother carries two BlackBerrys with her at all times. She looks at them while shopping and doing the downward-dog pose in yoga practice. "I had the feeling that my mom never listened to me," Christina says. The therapist advised that the family dinner table be an email-free zone. Still, Christina has her own BlackBerry -- a gift from her mother -- and she often uses it to communicate with her mom.
For many parents, finding the right balance is a struggle. Although mobile email allows them to attend a soccer game in the middle of the day, it also brings the office into the family room after dinner. In an age of connectedness, they sometimes have trouble disengaging from the office -- and many admit they check their messages more often than required. Bob Ledbetter Jr., whose son questions his hearing, agrees that he spends too much time checking his email. The commercial real-estate developer usually turns off his BlackBerry each night around 7:30 but then sometimes finds himself fiddling on his laptop computer. Totally disconnecting during family time "is a discipline I need to learn," says Mr. Ledbetter. "Even though I'm home, I'm not necessarily there."
Parents point out they're not alone in their habits. Jerry Colonna, father of ninth-grader Emma, says that for her birthday earlier this month, she asked for and received a T-Mobile Sidekick. "She's obsessively on email now," he says. "Kind of ironic." Emma responds: "I use it a moderate amount."
One of BlackBerry's biggest defenders, Jim Balsillie, the chairman of Research In Motion, says children should ask themselves, "Would you rather have your parents 20% not there or 100% not there?" Yet he, too, struggles with the issue. His wife tried to keep him off the device after work, asking him to leave it by the front door every night. When he snuck it in his pocket, he feared getting caught.
Chris DuMont, 15, of San Marino, Calif., recognizes that his father's habit helps bring in income. "Sometimes when we're on vacation he'll be on" his device, Chris says. "But the whole reason we're on vacation is because he's working."
Part of the blame certainly lies with the corporations that are outfitting their staffs with email devices, creating the expectation that employees will be available and responsive at all times. Still, some professionals have successfully carved time away from email, says Melissa Mazmanian, a fourth-year doctoral candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. For her dissertation, Ms. Mazmanian, 31, is studying the patterns of BlackBerry use among nearly 200 bankers, lawyers and employees of a footwear manufacturing company. People with infants and toddlers most actively set aside personal time, and colleagues learned to leave them alone.
More often, intervention is required. Lucas Ellin, the son of "Entourage" creator Doug Ellin, says his dad checks his email at restaurants, during Lucas's soccer games and on school visits. Lucas sometimes tries to divert his father's focus away from the device by hiding it or taking his dad's face in his hands to physically get his attention. When nothing else works, Lucas turns to the highest of authorities. "I go tell my mom that Daddy's not listening and then my mom yells at him," he says.
Sophie Singletary, the 7-year-old daughter of BlackBerry-driver Ross Singletary, can only dream of the day when she gets to call the shots. "I would say, 'You can only use the BlackBerry for two hours a day,' " she says. Then she pauses, and reconsiders: "Oh, actually, make it five minutes!"