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2009/07/29 09:00 KST
(Yonhap Feature) Parents worry, teens defend, experts divided on teenage 'thumb play'

By Shin Hae-in
SEOUL, July 29 (Yonhap) -- They do it late at night and often until dawn. They do it while eating and crossing busy streets. They do it in classrooms, with their hands hidden under the desk while their eyes are focused on the blackboard. They do it so much their thumbs hurt and their eyes blur.

   Teenagers defend "thumb play" -- mobile phone texting -- as part of their own culture that makes them feel connected to their peers. Mobile texting is as ubiquitous to South Korean youngsters as the notes their parents used to pass during class behind their teachers' back.

   But just how much "socializing" should be tolerated when teens here send an average of 1,000 texts per month, with phone bills going through the roof and experts warning against grave effects such as anxiety, distraction in school, falling grades, repetitive stress injuries, sleep deprivation and much more?

   Worried as well as annoyed, many parents here are seeking ways to control their children's excessive mobile phone use, mainly the texting.

   "When one of my daughter's phone bill listed more than 8,000 texts one month, I felt it was time to put my foot down," said housewife Yoo Myung-hye. "She was absolutely addicted to the beep that signaled a new message, ignoring whatever she'd been doing to check and answer it."

   "I confiscated phones from both kids and their grades have since improved. They're not happy, but I know I've made the right choice," said the mother of two daughters, 14 and 11.

   Some 43 million South Koreans own cellular phones, accounting for more than 88 percent of the population, according to 2008 government data. More than 80 percent of South Korean teenagers aged 12-18 own mobile phones, according to local fixed-line telecom giant KT Corp.

   In a move to improve classroom atmospheres and the concentration of students, some 700 elementary, junior and senior high schools in Seoul are trying to ban the use of cell phones in class. About 200 schools in the city already have rules in place that ban students from bringing the phones to school.

   Students, naturally, are furious.

   "I don't understand what all the fuss is about. It's simply a way of communication for us," said a male student at a Seoul school, requesting to be unnamed as his parents wouldn't approve of seeing his name in the press for "such irrelevant reasons."

   Arguing he is the "only adolescent on Earth not allowed to text" his friends, the boy fought with his parents for a whole month -- during which he went on a "hunger strike" and raised his grade in his weakest subject, mathematics -- in the quest to get his phone back.

   "I won it back the hard way. I'm not planning to give it up no matter what my school says," he said.

   While up to 70 percent of elementary school students surveyed by the Seoul Metropolitan Education Office this month were against banning mobile phones in class, 78 percent of teachers supported the plan.

   "Even the students won't be able to deny phones distract them in class," said Lee Sook-young, a teacher in training at a girls' high school in central Seoul. "They need to learn how to handle their desire to be constantly connected to their friends. I know what I'm saying -- I've been there myself."

   Lee Soo-yeon, a high school freshman, says schools will have a hard time finding students' hidden phones.

   "I can text on my phone as fast as I type on a regular keyboard, and I memorized the keypad so I can easily send texts without teachers noticing," the 17-year-old said.

   Teens prefer texting over talking on the phone for various reasons, she added.

   "We have our own symbols and words that can only be shared via texting," she said. "And I also like texting because it is, say, less confrontational and blunt. I can easily say something embarrassing or corny on mobile texting, like for instance, 'I love you, mom.'"

   But such a "passive attitude" can harm the development of communication skills, says Dr. Shin Yong-bum, a psychologist at a private medical institute in Seoul.

   "One has to make only little effort when communicating through texting, compared to meeting, calling or writing a letter to the person. Dozens of texts often don't convey as much emotion as one phone call," he said.

   "People who prefer texting -- both adults and teenagers -- tend to be relatively passive people who fear the effect of what they say or don't want to be bothered by others," Shin added. "Once adolescents make this a habit, they might face problems in properly communicating with people after they enter society."

   Dr. Shin also pointed to the psychological stress of texting.

   "Teenagers have serious interest in knowing what's happening to their friends and are anxious about being out of the circle," he said. "If something beeps or vibrates every couple of minutes, and you are keen to answer it immediately, it naturally distracts you and makes you very nervous."

   Ahn Hye-soo, a physician at Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital, said constant texting could also cause various physical health problems.

   "Although it is too early to tell whether the physical stress is damaging, I gather intensive repetitive use of the upper extremities can lead to various disorders, as seen in long-term computer users," she said. "I have seen quite a few teenagers with health problems that turned out to be caused by excessive use of the thumbs."

   Contrary to the rising concerns, a study by the U.S. MacArthur Foundation in 2005 concluded such socializing for teenagers is not all bad.

   Drawing conclusions from research on 800 young people and their parents, the study said "new media allows freedom and autonomy for youth that is less apparent in a classroom setting. Teens' full-time intimate community via mobile phones and instant messaging can be viewed as meaningful because youth are often more motivated to learn from peers than from adults."

   Kim Han-joon, a researcher at the National Youth Policy Institute here, agreed with the study.

   "A large part of the adults' concern about the dangers of excessive texting results from misperception and a lack of understanding," he said. "Kids have found a different way of socializing with the development of technology. Just because grown-ups don't understand, it doesn't mean it's all bad."

   In a similar view, Song Jin-sook, a teacher at a Seoul high school, called it "oppressive and anachronistic" to ban students completely from using cell phones at school.

   "I have seen several schools in provincial regions where students voluntarily turn off their phones in class," she said. "While this method might take longer time to take root, I think it is important for schools to take time persuading and discussing the issue with the students and give them a chance to make their own decision."