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DIGITAL BRONX: For many Bronx teens, the world is on their phone

By Shlomo Sprung

Terrel Bailey walked out of a red painted apartment building on E. 163rd St. in Morissania and asked if anyone had a cell phone he could borrow. The 16-year-old student at Harry S. Truman high school was tired of the Samsung Seek phone and decided he wanted a BlackBerry. He planned to pick it up in two days.

“The Seek had Web, email, IM, AIM, and unlimited everything,” he said. “I had the phone for two months and got bored of it.”

Bailey’s friend Malcom Hemmingway, 15, sold the Seek on his eBay account and is getting a new BlackBerry himself to keep up with his friends online. Hemmingway, also a student at Truman, sells candy on the streets to make some extra money and helps his brother to market and publicize a photography company. What seems like an overly active, entrepreneurial lifestyle for a young high school student is made possible by web-enabled phones like the BlackBerry.

Bailey and Hemmingway are just a small part of a growing reality, specifically among black and Hispanic youth, teens who use their cell phones for accessing the Web. A 2010 Pew Research report found that 44 percent of African American and 35 percent of Hispanic teens use their cell phones to go online, compared to 21 percent of white teens.

In addition, the BlackBerry has become an increasingly prevalent part of teenage life, including minorities. In a random sampling of 10 African American and Hispanic students interviewed at Bronx Regional High School, eight of them had smart phones with Internet access and five of them had BlackBerry devices.

Stephany Colon, 18, said her BlackBerry is her best friend. She even has a name for it, Amiyah. Colon, like every one of the students with smart phones, said she mainly uses her phone to connect with friends on Facebook even though she sees many of her friends during the day in school.

Danny Peralta, director of arts and education for The Point, a youth activities and culture center in Hunts Point, said that while he used to see cell phone usage “in waves,” for a couple of months at a time, “now all of them have something.” About 18 months ago, Peralta said he began posting invitations to activities, trips and events for The Point on Facebook and now “they’re all responding through their smart phones.”

Watch this video of how another group, Rocking The Boat, operates similarly.

“The majority of kids these days [at The Point] have smart phones today,” Peralta said and now the kids can just go on Facebook and see everything going on rather than having to log onto computers at home or in school. “It became a tool they can access,” he added.

Some worry that the availability of Facebook is being wielded as a weapon. Read the BronxInk’s story on cyberbullying.

Hemmingway and Bailey both said they send text messages far more often than they make actual phone calls. Their habits are typical. The Pew study found that two-thirds of teens who text said they were likely to use their cell phone to text their friends instead of calling them. Of teens aged 12-17, 54 percent of those surveyed sent text messages, compared with 38 percent that make phone calls.

Eight of the 10 Bronx Regional students interviewed said they use their phone for texting a lot more than calling. One student, 18-year-old John Cain, said he sends and receives at least 300 text messages each day. More than half the students said they send and receive at least 100 text messages per day.

Those numbers explain why Hemmingway said he plans to get a Virgin Mobile plan for his BlackBerry with fewer minutes for actual calls and unlimited text messaging because he never used all the minutes on his previous plan.

Though Hemmingway has Internet access at home via a laptop computer, 30 percent of low income teens, whose families earn less than $30,000 a year, do not have a computer at home, compared with eight percent who do in households that earn more, according to the Pew report. Even some who do have computers at home have slow dial-up service and prefer to use their phones to get online. Some Bronx Regional students who have desktops instead of laptops, like 17-year-old Isatow Sillah, said they used their phone because of the portability the smart phones afford them.

But there are still a quarter of American teens, according to the Pew report, who do not have cell phones at all. What do they do to communicate and keep in touch in the modern world?

Aaron Ortega, a 16-year-old Kennedy high school student, said his family can’t afford to get him a cell phone; he uses the old fashioned land line to talk to his friends. Ortega said he does not feel the social pressure to get a phone but still has an active social life despite his inability to be contacted away from home.

“My friends know I don’t have a phone and they deal with it,” he said. “So it’s really not so bad for me.”

Click here for more stories on the Digital Bronx.

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