Privileged teens and their digital toys

July 17, 2009: 1:03 PM ET

Why the Kids of NYC Prep brandish BlackBlackberrys

"We all have BlackBerrys, that's so New York," says high-school student Camille, in an episode of Bravo latest reality hit, NYC Prep. The show, a summer series that follows six teens at ritzy New York schools, has sparked a firestorm of online gossip. One recurring question: what are teens today doing with Research in Motion's (RIMM) gadget that is designed for corporate professionals three times their age?

The teens of NYC Prep

The teens of NYC Prep

Mobile web perks like 24/7 email or virtual calendars are hardly relevant to high schoolers: Instead, these teens say they use the phone most frequently for text messaging, which has largely overtaken phone calls among the younger set.

"I don't call people, except for my mom," scoffs Taylor, another NYC Prep cast member. (Bravo declines to disclose the last names of the minors on the show) "And no one uses it to email each other." Adds Camille:  "Most of my phone conversations start with a text, like, 'Can I call you?' "

Given that text messages are a basic feature of even the cheapest cell phone, the smartphone's teen appeal may be little more than flash, conspicuous consumption for Park Avenue heirs.

Digging Deeper
But this picture is incomplete. For one thing, features like BlackBerry Messenger allow teens to bridge the gap between phone and computer, sending, in effect, real time text messages to fellow BlackBerry customers as well as friends sitting at home computers. That expands the phone's reach beyond the rich kids.

And, points out Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin, the BlackBerry's reach will only grow further as mobile carriers move to make text, instant, and email messages interchangeable in their pricing schemes.

Golvin's most recent research, a survey of 5,000 North American teens, ages twelve and up, shows 90% have a mobile phone by age eighteen, that they spend more time texting than talking, and that a majority prefer texting on a full keyboard. Together, Golvin says these statistics offer growth opportunities for BlackBerry and a competitive edge over its main rival, Apple's touch-based iPhone.

Little Kids, Big Business
The business opportunities don't end there. While teens aren't using the mobile web to read news articles, they are signing on to social networks MySpace and Facebook in droves. Yes, social networking phone applications have been popular with grownups too, but the NYC Prep-sters are doing more than update their profile status remotely. They are playing games, uploading pictures and watching video over the networks a level of mobile social media activity markedly above that of adult professionals.

Indeed, as third-party applications increasingly become the focus of smartphone innovations, it's nonprofessionals who are driving the sector's revenue growth. BlackBerry's maker, Research in Motion, attributes 80% of recent growth to this demographic.

Better still, points out Golvin, teens will pay—or whine until their parents do—for applications most adults expect for free. His survey shows some 40% of teens are willing to spend for access to music, movies and games on their phones and the ability to connect these applications to their social media profiles.

Looks Still Matter
None of this quite erases the suspicion that Camille and her friends are carrying the phones around for social status. So much do looks matter, she says, that her classmates weren't interested in the phones' functionality till the release of the sleeker, smaller BlackBerry Curve in 2007.

Slim design gives BlackBerry another advantage over the iPhone, but it doesn't add up to less business for Apple. Instead, teens beg parents to splurge on both a smartphone for texting and an iPod for listening to music; they are fans of multitasking. Says Camille, "Having a [larger] iPod on your desk, since those are allowed in school, and a separate phone to text with in class makes it much easier to get away with."

Sneaking behind teachers' backs to send notes in class? Perhaps high school hasn't changed much after all.

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