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Children with Keitai: When Mobile Phones Change from “Unnecessary” to “Necessary”


This paper focuses on children in Japan who begin using mobile phones (keitai) while in elementary school and will discuss aspects of parental–child relationships that involve keitai use. Firstly, this paper presents an overview of a Japanese society presently immersed in mobile media, focusing particularly on the spread of mobile media use to younger Japanese children. Data are presented from two research projects and analyzed to examine the cause of, and circumstances that lead to, child keitai use. Increasing social anxieties about safety and parental concern have reportedly led to increasing perception that keitai use is valuable in times of emergency, or in order to prevent crime, leading to a shift in attitudes towards children’s keitai use: that which was formerly considered “unnecessary” has now become “necessary”. However, the anxiety about safety is shared by almost all people and is therefore not itself a deciding factor regarding children’s keitai ownership. Keitai usage is, instead, prompted by several factors, some of which are not shared by children and parents. From this rift in reasoning emerges a game of tug-of-war over ownership and use between children and parents.




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  1. 1.

    For example, Japan’s largest carrier, NTT DoCoMo, terminated the acceptance of new contracts in March 2005. The number of prepaid contracts is 1.72 million (as of the end of June 2008), which is about 1.66%.

  2. 2.

    Data for under 13s; for all ages the figures were 200–300 (National Police Agency, White Paper).

  3. 3.

    For more on the discussion of the “family who educates”, based on processes first established among the new urban middle class (professionals and salaried workers) of 1910 to 1920 (Sawayama 1990), see Kambayashi (2004) who discusses the popularization and diversification of these norms after the mid-1950s, along with current issues.

  4. 4.

    The practice of enjo kosai, where school-aged girls meet with, go on dates with, and may also perform sexual acts with older men, was one of the major concerns associated with these dating sites from the mid-1990 to mid-2000

  5. 5.

    For example, according to a survey inquiring what age group is generally appropriate for starting usage of various media, for keitai, the majority responded senior high school students (37.6%), followed by college students (20.4%), working adults (17.8%), junior high school students (14.0%), and only then elementary school students (5.2%). This survey took place from November to December 2001, and thus considering the subsequent trend towards a decreasing age of keitai adoption, it can be assumed that there would now be a higher rate of those who select elementary and junior high school students. Even at the time of the survey, a majority of people replied that elementary school students were a suitable age group for all the other media, in particular computers, television, video games, newspapers, and cartoons (Mobile Communication Research Group 2002).

  6. 6.

    While the decision to focus on mothers only, not fathers, as the subject of investigation may be open to dispute, in Japan, there is a strong tendency for the responsibility and burden of housework and child care to center on the mother. For instance, according to Ota (2006), when comparing the results of an Eurostat (2004) survey on how Europeans spend their time in everyday life in ten European countries with those of Japan, while employed men in Japan spend 52 min on housework during weekdays, their European counterparts spend between 112 to 144 min (employed women: Japan, 218 min; Europe, 191 to 264 min). Moreover, according to a survey conducted in 2003 by Japan’s National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (2007), 50.5% of the decisions concerning child care and education were made by the wife, 46.1% by both husband and wife, and 3.4% by the husband. Furthermore, when married couples were asked about child care responsibilities, more than half of them responded that the wife bears over 90% of the burden. In future studies, although it may be necessary to investigate other family members—in particular fathers—based on the aforementioned facts, there is sufficient validity in the decision to use only mothers as the subject of investigation.

  7. 7.

    For the eight items concerning values, such as “One can do whatever one wants as long as it does not trouble other people” or “It is foolish to be diligent and work hard”; six items concerning everyday problematic behavior, such as “I don’t go home even past midnight” and “I go to school late”; six items concerning general sense of trust such as “On the whole, people are basically honest”, “On the whole, people are trustworthy”; 14 items concerning social skills including “Conversations with strangers usually flow well” or “I am skillful in helping strangers”, and nine items concerning the sense of parent–child relationships such as “(Your mother) does not know who you really are” or “(Your mother) is strict about manners”, respondents had to select one of the following responses: “applies”, “somewhat applies”, “slightly applies” or “does not apply”.

  8. 8.

    In addition to the same items concerning values, general sense of trust, and social skills for the children, there were 13 items concerning the sense of the parent–child relationship such as “I often scold my child without realizing it” or “When my opinions differ from my child’s we discuss the issue until we reach a mutual agreement”; and 17 items concerning the sense of child-rearing such as “I believe children have the strength to find their own direction in life”, or “I think I might have made a mistake in the way I raised my child”, to which the respondents had to select from the same four responses.

  9. 9.

    For the nine items concerning keitai use including “I’m not concerned about the time when calling my friends” or “I keep my keitai switched on 24 hours a day”; a total of seven items in addition to those two mentioned in this sentence, such as “I quarrel more with my parents”; and eight items concerning changes in the daily life from keitai use such as “I gained freedom in my independent activities” or “There are times I’m careless about studies because of keitai use”, respondents again had to select from the same four responses.

  10. 10.

    “Calling to get picked up by parents” is also connected with a gender difference in keitai usage. For instance, when both gender groups were asked about voice calling and e-mailing to parents, a majority of females occurred only in regard to calling “to get picked up” (males 31.1%, females 44.9%; p < 0.05).

  11. 11.

    Incidentally, in this survey, in comparison to those who attend public junior high schools, tendencies could be seen for those who attend national and private junior high schools to have high household incomes and mothers with high academic backgrounds who were dedicated to matters concerning their child’s education. There were also many mothers who were full-time housewives or worked 35 h or more part-time. Therefore, rather than keitai ownership in the elementary school student group being directly influenced by high household income, it should be considered that a high income household correlates to a child’s attendance at national and private schools, which is thus linked to a child’s keitai ownership.

  12. 12.

    See Shutoken de gonin ni hitori ga chugaku jyuken (one in five elementary students took the selective examination to enroll in junior high school) in “Sunday Mainichi” 2 December 2007:72–103; and 2008 nen no chugaku jyuken ha matashitemo “shijyo saidai” (the number of elementary students who took the selective examination to enroll the junior high school hits a new high again in 2008.) in “Economist” 11 March 2008:68–70.

  13. 13.

    Statistically significant differences were observed in the responses to each of the following items: “One may do whatever one pleases as long as it does not trouble other people”, “Crime incidents and accidents involving children are on the rise”, “Conversations with strangers usually flow well”, “When trouble occurs between people around me, I can skillfully handle it”, “When I do something wrong, I can apologize immediately”, “I think I might have made a mistake in the way I raised my child”, “A child can make decisions on things that are important to them”, and “I’ve supervised their studies since they were little and would like to continue to as much as I can”.

  14. 14.

    According to a questionnaire survey conducted by the Mobile Society Research Institute (2006), currently for a great majority of senior high school students, it was advancement to junior high or high school or advancements to higher grade levels within school that prompted their keitai ownership. Moreover, according to the same survey, most children’s keitai ownership now begins in their first year of junior high school (43.2%). Although until recently it was starting senior high school that prompted keitai use, now acquiring one when entering junior high is the more common pattern. This particular child, then, was behind most of his peers in acquiring the new technology.


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Correspondence to Misa Matsuda.

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Matsuda, M. Children with Keitai: When Mobile Phones Change from “Unnecessary” to “Necessary”. East Asian Science 2, 167–188 (2008).

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  • Mobile phone
  • Keitai
  • Children
  • Family
  • Parent–child relationships