by Abby Margolis Newman
Last week, I had a wake-up call, a bucket of cold water in my face courtesy of AT&T: I found out that my middle son, age 14, had racked up 847 text messages in less than two weeks of cell phone usage. Even more stunning, my husband told me later that the vast majority of the texting was between Aaron and girls--well, mostly, one specific girl. A girlfriend or just a friend? He's not saying.
Let me back up a bit. Until a few weeks ago, our family was one of a rare species: a house with two teenagers and zero texting. We were trapped in a multi-year plan with Verizon and texting was simply not a part of the package. My two older boys have both had cell phones since they started middle school a few years ago, but they were to be utilized in rare cases; so yes, they had the phones, but they weren't supposed to actually use them.
My oldest son, Jonah, is a sophomore in high school, and Aaron is a freshman. Jonah, while anal-compulsive and uber-responsible about schoolwork, is completely inept when it comes to taking care of a cell phone. He has broken two phones playing baseball (useful tip: do not slide into a base with a phone in your pocket) and left three phones in his pants only to go through the washing machine. Our solution was to make him pay for his own phone, and to order the cheapest and crappiest model Verizon offered. This hideous, puke-green article has been a total embarrassment to Jonah and an internal family joke.
Aaron, on the other hand, has not lost, broken, or washed a single phone in the past three years. So when we were finally released this winter from the bondage of Verizon and switched over to AT&T, we gave Aaron a new phone for Hanukkah. With texting. Let me amend that: with 200 texts per month, which I (naively) assumed would be plenty. I thought, how many texts could a kid send in one day?
Thirteen days later, I got a generic email message from AT&T, which informed me that I could check our "family plan" minutes any time I wanted. Normally, I delete these messages and move on, but something made me click on the link. Here was the shocking news: Aaron's phone number showed that his actual usage included 847 text messages.
I called AT&T immediately. "There must be some mistake," I said to the customer service representative, my fake indignation barely concealing my panic. "There is no way he could have sent 847 text messages in less than two weeks."
The AT&T rep, who had one of those soothing types of upperclass British accents, asked gently, "First, did you know that your account is charged whether you send or receive a text?" I said, truthfully, that I had no idea. Trying to be tactful, he asked, "Is this second line on your phone used by a teenager, by chance?" "Aaron!" I yelled, forgetting to cover the mouthpiece of the phone (sorry, British guy).
As Aaron approached my office, I tried to bring my breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure back to normal; then I said, "Aaron, is it possible that you have sent and received 847 texts since you got this phone, thirteen days ago?"
While the British guy and I waited for his response, I watched Aaron's face which, I knew, would show everything. The kid simply does not lie. With a truly shamefaced, hangdog expression, his mouth curling into an embarrassed smile, Aaron said in a small voice, "Maybe." I imagined AT&T guy stifling laughter in the background.
Texting is a tidal wave among teenagers; it is, simply, their main communication device. Every parent I admire has reminded me from time to time that, as parents, we need to pick our battles. In this case, I had to ask myself, was this one I wanted to fight? Was it a skirmish I had any chance of winning in the long term? Didn't we spend hours on the phone ourselves during high school?
So, we switched to unlimited texting, back-dated our plan so that we wouldn't have to pay for the extra 647 texts (thank you, British guy, wherever you are), and Aaron is now contributing his own money, monthly, to help cover the new plan. As the saying goes, I reminded him, free speech isn't really free. In fact, as Aaron has learned, it comes with a price: $10 per month.