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The constant ringing of a cell phone can be heard just about everywhere today.

From parks to movie theaters, the invasive noise of a cell phone playing "Beethoven's Fifth" or "Happy Birthday" is inescapable. In the past, it seemed as if only business executives, lawyers and doctors could have these little gadgets, but there seems to be a growing trend among teenagers to view cell phones as the "must have" status symbol.

Continuing in the tradition of its somewhat outdated cousin, the pager, cell phone use among teenagers has skyrocketed in recent years. A recent AT&T report acknowledged that one in five American teens carry a wireless phone.

In fact, one can almost claim cell phones have achieved fadlike status as a fashion statement akin to platform shoes or the tankini, making it obligatory for every teen to try to obtain one.

Manufacturers have pounced on this trend, releasing "teen-friendly" wireless phones with exotic colors, cool designs and games. Meanwhile, since many teens have no real way to support their expensive communication habits, it becomes their parents' job to pay the bills. Many parents gladly obtain cell phones for their adolescents, believing they will be used in emergencies and thus be an investment in their child's safety.

However, the truth of the matter is that most teens see cell phones as a tool to improve their social lives.

One program that has increased cell phone use among teens is Cellular One's Family Talk Plan, which allows a family to share multiple phones (with different phone numbers) for a fairly reasonable monthly fee. The great thing about this is that all family cell phone-to-cell phone calls are free of charge, meaning one never has to worry about outrageous charges while assuring overprotective parents everything is OK. Essentially, this makes the phones into long-range walkie-talkies.

Shannon Kahabka, a sophomore at Clarence High, likes the Family Talk plan because it allows her to be in contact with family when she can't get to a phone. "Although my family initially got the phones in case of emergencies, it is also great in case we just needed to get into contact with each other," she said.

Perhaps the most popular line of phones among teens is the Nokia 5100 series, which boasts such features as call waiting, call forwarding, digital messaging and, of course, games.

Shannon finds the cell phone games confusing, stating: "I don't (know how to play) any of them."

But Corey Dietz, a junior at Orchard Park, can't stop playing the games on his Family Talk phone. "The games on my phone are great -- they are a good way to pass the time on a boring car ride. I personally can't get enough of the Snake game. It can keep me amused for hours."

Still, cell phones have disadvantages. Many times callers find they have wandered outside the coverage area and are now "roaming." A frequent place to run up a cell phone bill with "roaming charges" is Six Flags Darien Lake, which happens to be right outside Buffalo's cell phone coverage area. Sometimes the audio quality is not the best and a conversation transpires through a lot of static. (That problem should be alleviated by ever-improving technology.)

Cell phones have also posed a unique challenge to area high schools. Obviously, administrators and teachers do not want cell phones ringing during classes, nor would most students. But what about students who want to use their wireless phones during lunch period to get in touch with their parents?

Yet other problems crop up, too -- like the possibility of thievery and an increase in intra-school rivalry between those who can afford cell phones and those who can't. Currently, it seems as if most schools are using an all-out ban on cell phones during school hours to head off whatever problems could develop.

Another problem is the use of cell phones while driving. Ironically, while many parents get their teenager a cell phone for safety purposes, the cell phone may be the biggest safety hazard of all while driving. Currently, the only solution for this problem is to buy a rather nerdy "hands-free cell phone kit" with earpiece and microphone that allows the driver to keep both hands on the wheel. (Some places around the country have made it illegal to use a wireless phone while driving.)

Colleen Connors, a senior at Nardin Academy, observes: "I have a hard enough time navigating around the streets of Buffalo without having to worry about answering ... a cell phone."

Regardless of the problems that crop up, the fact remains that cell phones are here to stay. With falling prices and better technologies, cell phones will become more and more common, giving teens yet another way to interact and have fun.

Matt Nagowski is a senior at Orchard Park High School. And no, contrary to popular belief, he does not find cell phones sexy.

Cell phone stats
24 percent of U.S. girls and 15 percent of U.S. boys own wireless phones.

More than 80 percent of teens surveyed said cell phones are "in."

Parents pay for their teens' wireless phone bills 72 percent of the time.

Data from Yankee Group 2000, a wire industry analyst group, and Teenage Research Unlimited 2000

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