“Will the Police See My Text?” Tracing Mobilities of ‘Vulnerable’ Youth as Sites to be (Un)seen

Home > Featured Articles Archive The following is a conference paper presented at AERA 2015 (Theme: Towards Justice: Culture, Language, and Heritage in Education and Praxis).

To cite this paper using APA format: Conley, T. L. (April 2015). “Will the police see my text?” Tracing mobilities of ‘vulnerable’ youth as sites to be (un)seen, American Educational Research Association, Chicago, Illinois. For inquiries, feel free to email me at tlc2132 [at] tc [dot] columbia [dot] edu.

“Will the police see my text?” Tracing mobilities of ‘vulnerable’ youth as sites to be (un)seen

By Tara L. Conley

Oftentimes the concept of mobility is thought of in terms of how people move along the socioeconomic spectrum. Economic social mobility, in particular, is a fiercely debated topic throughout U.S. national discourse in tandem with conversations about income inequality, education inequity, and racial politics (Chaiken, J., Dosa, S., Dungan, S., and Silberstein, S., 2013; Chetty, Hendren, Kline, and Saez, 2014). Other conceptions of mobility concern physical and spatial movement. For instance, studies on the physical and spatial mobility patterns of street children and students reveal that young people who transition from place-to-place negotiate home and school life in remarkable yet undervalued ways (Van Blerk, 2005; Robertson, 2009, 2010, 2013; Leader, Phillips, and Taylor, 2010). Further studies highlighting the mediated lives of young people situate mobility as a metaphor and as socio-spatial processes (Stald, 2008; Leander and Vasudevan, 2009).  This paper presents original research consisting of narrative accounts about how young people involved in juvenile justice and foster care systems experience mobilities as they negotiate a sense of place within contemporary society.

This research is situated within the context of a pilot study where the researcher and participants co-designed and co-developed TXT CONNECT, a free text-messaging service for young people involved in foster care and juvenile court systems in New York City. In 2013, the researcher and participants convened for several months in a community-based setting to design and develop a mobile platform that would serve youth in the neighborhood. Ethnographic methods such as participant observation, informal interviews, and focus groups were employed throughout the study. Similarly, participatory design (PD) methods such as participatory prototyping were used to elicit feedback from participants about user preferences and design. The narratives presented in this paper represent only partial accounts of the larger pilot study.

The conversations documented here reveal that for these young people in particular, connecting to their communities not only meant accessing educational resources, job listings, and intervention services like hotlines, it also meant adopting the mobile device as a documentation tool, and being identified through the device itself as they navigated city and institutional spaces whereby surveillance was pervasive. Throughout the study, participants asked questions like, “Will the police see my text message?” They also shared stories about how peers with flip phones are ridiculed for not having the latest or trendiest Smartphone.

The implications of these conversations are significant for educational researchers concerned with the wellbeing and educational trajectories of young people and how media artifacts might locate movement and social interactions across space. As this research indicates, youth participants were astutely aware of how mobile and digital media presented undesirable opportunities to be seen and noticed by others like peers and police officers. The mobile device, in this instance, “demand[ed] new modes of action” from participants and from others around them (Sayes, 2014, p. 134). As such, young people’s mobility patterns, or the process during which vulnerable youth negotiated between what is revealed about self, others, and institutions can be traced.

The Mobilities Turn

Communication scholarship has within the past two decades taken a turn in how it approaches studying and researching mobility. The mobilities turn, often cited by scholars in the field of communications describes a shift in thinking in the social sciences that conceptualizes and prioritizes mobility as fluid and always in motion (Wiley & Packer, 2010; Brown & Durrheim, 2009; Buscher & Urry, 2009; Elliot & Urry, 2011; Sheller & Urry, 2006). The mobilities turn in research “calls on us to rethink place, space, and belonging in light of the ways in which power works through differential mobilities and emplacements” (Wiley & Packer, p. 341). Instead of a media-centric approach to studying communication, as in ‘the effects of Facebook on X’ or ‘the impact of the iPhone on Z’ newer approaches situate communication technologies within a broader scope of social, economic, and political processes (Wiley & Packer, p. 264). The mobilities turn in the field of communications challenges sedentarist assumptions, or fixed ideals about culture and contemporary life in particular, and instead reimagines and rethinks “place and space from the standpoint of connectivity and flow” (Wiley, & Packer, p. 264). Throughout this research, place and space are referred to processes, often complex, which constantly produce social relations and practices, and generate connectivity.

Perspectives on the ways in which spaces and movement shape identities are particularly relevant to consider when exploring young peoples’ experiences throughout everyday life. Stald (2008) argues that mobile identities are entrenched in youth culture and experiences. When citing a case study on youth perceptions about the concept of ‘the mobile’, Stald argues that ‘the mobile’ is not merely constructed of physical movements between places, but is also a metaphor for “a readiness to communicate [with others]” (p. 146). Mobility, then, can also be understood as an awareness of self in proximity to other people, places, and things.

A similar study on mobile culture and multimodality comes from Leander and Vasudevan (2009). These researchers purposefully move away from a situated view of space towards a networked perspective of social interactions and cultural practices (p. 130). They focus on movement across texts, modes, and spaces and (re)conceptualize social practices in terms of “space-as-process” (p. 129). Leander and Vasudevan also account for the ways media and technologies move with youth to reconfigure identities and experiences. The authors write,

[A] youth moving various geographic and social spaces casts and recasts his identity with new media productions, productions that rewrite and modally reconfigure his experiences of the everyday. Moreover, in these multimodal recasting of identity, the youth also positions himself as a storyteller, producer, and director of his own identities” (p. 131).

Leander and Vasudevan’s notion of ‘recasting of identity’ through social spaces and new media is echoed in Harvey’s (1996) work, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference. Harvey argues that technologies “have altered space and time relations and forced new material practices as well as new modes of representation of space” (p. 240). Like Stald, Leander and Vasudevan (re)consider mobility and movement as processes that profoundly shape youth identities and everyday social practices.

Locative Media

Locative media refers to any form of media, like Smartphones for example, which characterize a device’s ability to be located in physical space and “provide[s] people with information about their surrounding spaces” (Frith, 2015, pp. 2-7). Locative media studies is a subfield of mobilities studies that takes up issues concerning how mobile media mediates experiences of movement and affects peoples’ relationships to place. As with the mobilities turn, scholars in the field of locative media studies are also concerned with how space and place shape identity and social life (Jensen, 2009; Frith, 2015). The concept of place carries countless meanings and metaphors that challenge fixity and stability. As Harvey (1996) points out: “place has to be one of the most multilayered and multipurpose keywords in our language (p. 208) since the notion can be applied metaphorically, materially, and territorially. Though concepts of place have undergone several iterations over the past two decades, locative media scholars agree that the concept of place is unfixed, unbounded, and non-static and refers to a process of flows.

De Souza e Silva’s (2006) conceptual framing of hybrid spaces; that is, spaces “formed through a combination of social interaction, digital information, and physical space” (Firth, 2015, p. 7) has influenced how scholars within the field begin to understand the relationship between location-based media and people’s experiences of mobility and their construction of place. Firth (2015) writes:

In these hybrid spaces, the digital influences experiences of place, but places also influences experiences of the digital. This co-construction of place as locative media is the most relevant shift from older forms of mobile media to the locative media […] [E]xperiences of place cannot be separated from the different technologies used to mediate mobility (pp. 25-26).

Since the experience of the digital cannot be separated from the experience of place, studying locative media like Smartphones (with GPS tracking) become an important and contested site of inquiry. As it involves young people that are tethered to child welfare and juvenile justices systems, and who also carry mobile devices with them, what then might their experiences of mobility and construction of place look like? The following sections provide a glimpse into some of these experiences.

TXT CONNECT: A Free Mobile Platform for Court-Involved Youth

During the summer of 2013, while New York City residents were at odds over mayoral candidates and policing practices, young people involved in both foster care and juvenile justice systems were developing and designing TXT CONNECT. The mobile platform is a free text-messaging service that supports court- involved youth in New York City to access resources and services using their cell phones. Young people were provided with a 10-digit number (also known as a long code number) to text in requests using keywords like “EDU” for educational services, “JOBS” for a list of jobs in the area, and “REMIND” to set up appointment reminders. Depending on requests, users received an automated reply with resource information and links, or they received a manual reply if they wished to set up an appointment reminder or mobile companion service.

Three months before Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City vetoed the Community Safety Act[1] and while the city’s political sexting[2] scandal garnered national attention, several young people serving on TXT CONNECT’s Youth Advisory Board and I were discussing ways mobile technology could be used to help court-involved youth stay connected to their communities. Unaware about the extent to which Stop-and-Frisk and other safety concerns affected young people lives, I brought forth the idea of a text messaging platform that would primarily function as means of connecting court-involved youth to educational resources such as tutoring services and neighborhood jobs. At the time, the stated purpose of the platform was to create an intimate and anonymous means for young people involved in both foster care and juvenile justice systems to seek out resources beyond the institutions to which they were bound.

Cell phones, I thought, would be the easiest and most familiar way to facilitate connection between young people and their communities. However, the more I talked with young people, the more I understood that connecting to their communities not only meant accessing educational resources, job listings, and intervention services like hotlines, it also meant seeing the mobile device itself as a documentation tool and digital companion for young people as they navigate the complex terrain of peer monitoring (Andrejevic, 2005; and later “interpersonal surveillance,” Trottier, 2012) and institutional surveillance (Ruderman, 2013).

“If you still got a Blackberry you might get picked on.”

Recent literature makes the connection between mobile youth culture and mobile telephony in that mobile means not only movement of the physical body or describes the capacity of a personalized cellular device, but mobility also implies a readiness for change and communication (Stald, 2008, p. 146). While the claim about mobility and change might be true for most communities with available access and independence, this may not necessarily be the case for young people who oftentimes are not able to access basic technologies like cell phones while being dependent upon the state for resources. Inaccessibility in turn creates a cycle of dependency among young people and the institution. According to a report by Peterson (2010) on dependency and mentoring juvenile justice youth,

Dependency court-involved youth referred to mentoring programs often have communication problems, which interfere with the referral and match process. Dependency court-involved youth rarely have access to a computer or cell phone, and even when they do, it is often only for a short period of time (p. 7).

Likewise, a report by the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform (Leone and Weinberg, 2010) states, “a consistent problem with education services in juvenile corrections is inadequate communication and collaboration among agencies serving youth both within facilities and between facilities and the community” (p. 20). Communication barriers between court-involved youth and institutional systems present significant problems for young people that already lack a personal support system.

Another way to understand mobile identity and youth culture is to look at the trends or conversations young people have about mobile technology. Stald notes,

The variety of uses and forms of adaptation is not simply determined by usability, functionality, and needs. The choice of the mobile and use of services also indicate the mobility and fleeting inconsistency of trends in youth cultures (p. 149).

Similarly to Stald, Gordon (2006) argues that the cell phone functions as a way to identify and shape perceptions about how we are seen.

Although in essence the cell phone is simply a tool of communications, it goes out with its user he [sic] carries it about on his [sic] person. It has become an object by which we are known and identified, not only by those who are contacted by it but also by those who see us (p. 50).

The notion of being seen is of particular interest to this research that centers on the lives of young people in foster care and juvenile justice systems. I wondered if court-involved youth and youth un-tethered to court systems (or mainstream youth, hereafter) experiences similar thoughts and anxieties around identity and mobile phone use. Before conducting participatory design research with young people, I assumed court-involved youth were not preoccupied with how cell phones might shape the way others perceive them and their status. Unlike their mainstream peers, I imagined that young people who generally lacked access to personal mobile devices were unaffected by popular trends and peer pressure. However, the exchange I had with TXT CONNECT’s youth advisory board (YAB) members tells its own story about mobile trends and young people’s ideas about how cell phones impact the way they are perceived.

Researcher: I have a question. You all have cell phones, right? And they’re reliable? Do court-involved youth that you know have cell phones? Do they have data plans? Do they have Smartphones? Do they have flip phones?

YAB Male 1: Some of them have flip phones. Some of them have Smartphones. There are some of them who are scared to pull out their flip phones because—

YAB Female 1: They may get picked on.

YAB Male 1: Exactly!

Researcher: They might what?

YAB Female 1: Get picked on.

Researcher: Picked on? Really?

YAB Male 1: Yes!

Researcher: Because they have a flip phone and not a Smartphone?

YAB Male 1: Yes!

Researcher: That’s horrible.

YAB Male 1: Kids are vindictive.

YAB Male 2: If you still got a Blackberry--and you around my age--you might get picked on.

YAB Female 1: I have a Blackberry. How does that make me less of a person, because I don’t have an upgraded phone like you?

YAB Male 1: I like it! I like [the Blackberry] more because it’s more of a useful phone than the [Apple] iPhone and the [Samsung] Galaxy.

YAB Female 1: But you know what? I also think it’s the media that portrays it that way. Like we need it.

YAB Male 1: Of course.

YAB Female 1: It’s like water. Our tap water gets checked everyday to make sure it’s safe for our bodies, but [bottled water] might not get checked as much, but they make it seem like we need it more.

YAB Male 1: But see, if you want to talk about that, that’s on a whole other level. That’s propaganda!

YAB Female 1: But they make it seem like we need this special water.

YAB Male 1: Yeah! They do that with everything! It’s how the government makes money off of the foolish.

YAB Male 2: But then there’s a lot of girls who be like, ‘Oh, if you don’t have an iPhone 5, you’re not popular.’[Laughing].

YAB Male 1: Yup.

YAB Male 2: The kids get into stuff like that you know. But there are some kids who don’t have a phone.

Researcher: You have an iPhone?

YAB Male 1: Yeah, the 5.

Researcher: You have an iPhone?

YAB Female 2: No, the Galaxy Exhibit.

Researcher: But they’re all Smartphones?

All: Yeah.

YAB Male 1: Most of the time, look, it’s hard as hell right now to find a flip phone. I’m not even going to lie, if you got a flip phone, I’m probably gonna cut ya ass.[Laughing].

YAB Male 2: Like for real! I’d rather you not even have a phone if you gonna have [a flip phone]. [Laughing].

Listen to exchange above.

Most notable about this exchange regarding cell phone trends is what other conversations about peer monitoring emerge. Peer monitoring is form of interpersonal surveillance that “renders users visible to one another in a way that warrants a care of virtual self” (Trottier, 2012, p. 61). Though the concept of peer monitoring emerged from studies about social media and young people’s virtual identities, it is a useful concept to apply here because it describes the tension that exists when desiring both visibility and invisibility within peer circles.  All members of the youth advisory board understood the cultural capital of the mobile device within and among their peer circles. As described in the analogy about the cell phone and water, YAB Female 1 not only understood the impact of advertising media on cell phone choice, but she also understood that choice is influenced by peer pressure and impacts perception.

The mobile device can reveal a young person’s socioeconomic status, including dependency status, despite that young person not wanting such status to be known in relation to her or his peer group. The type of mobile phone as it is visible to others not only reveals status; however, but it also a reveals a desire for young people to connect while also wanting to be unseen. As a participatory design project, this conversation above informed how the youth advisory board and I went about designing and prototyping TXT CONNECT, which would eventually allow for various types of cell phones, whether Smartphones and flip phones, to be able to access services via Short Message Service (SMS).

“Will The Police See My Text?”

Locative media like Smartphones can function as mechanisms through which authoritative, corporate, and governing powers have access to and control over information. In June of 2013, around the time when YAB members and I were conducting focus groups in New York City, Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (or NSA) contractor leaked federal documents that contained information about the federal government’s surveillance program. The phone surveillance program, also known as the “215 Program” searches for “links between foreign terrorists and their U.S.-based contacts” (Priest, 2013). When triggered, federal agents have the authority to bypass privacy protection laws of wireless carriers and search through United States cell phone records linked to foreign numbers. Citizens expressed outrage over the program’s violation of the Fourth Amendment, and some remain skeptical about what constitutes “reasonable, articulate suspicion.” Not surprisingly, the legal language described by the NSA program resembles the legal definition of Stop-and-Frisk, which warranted police to stop anyone under reasonable suspicion of criminal activity (a lower standard than probable cause). The concern here, of course, has to do with the implications when what is seen or locatable involves young people with cell phones who are also tied to state and federal court systems.

Though research shows that cell phones allow for young people to stay in constant contact while maintaining privacy, this sense of privacy may at times be falsely perceived. De Souza e Silva (2006) points out that the cell phone disables the ability of authority figures, like parents, to monitor a young person’s activities arguing that “the cell phone has become a personal item [that] frequently represents freedom from parents’ surveillance” (p. 33). While this claim may be true in some circumstances, it is also true that mobile phones can be monitored by Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and tapped when under surveillance. A sense of privacy and freedom is undermined by the devices ability to locate and track movement across time and space.

While talking with young people involved in juvenile and criminal justice systems about TXT CONNECT during two separate focus group sessions, one major concern that the young people expressed has to do with who is monitoring the incoming text messages. One young person asked, “Will the [New York Police Department] see my text message?” This young person was suspicious of how the platform would transmit messages, and rightly so. Similarly to the previous example of peer monitoring, institutional surveillance of mobile devices might also situate young people in positions of desiring both connectivity and anonymity as a way to navigate within their communities and seek privacy.

During another session, some of the young people that participated in the focus group talked about New York City’s policing practice of Stop-and-Frisk and the growing tensions within the community as a result. A few young men talked about how they felt there was nothing they could do to change the law[3]. One young man (Male 2) who had been stopped, questioned, and frisked by the police said that he was just minding his own business when it happened. Another young man (Male 1) who had never been stopped before was the most vocal of the group.

Male 1: I’ve never been stopped. Sometimes, I’ll walk by a cop and stare him down, or spit, just to see if he’s gonna do something. I wish he would.

Male 2: You just have to be aware. Don’t talk to a cop. Keep your head down. Keep it moving.

The conversation dovetailed into a discussion about social media and police surveillance. I mentioned to the focus group that TXT CONNECT’s Facebook page is not one hundred percent private. When I mentioned this, a young woman, who was quite throughout most of the time during the focus group, spoke out.

Female 1: Yeah, I want to know more about if TXT CONNECT will be monitored on Facebook.

The possibility of police surveillance on a mobile media and social networks piqued the interest of young people in both focus groups.

The concern expressed in both focus groups provides insight into the ways in which court-involved youth navigate the city terrain of high visibility. Though these young people are visible, some move in ways so as to be unseen (e.g. “Don’t talk. Keep your head down.”). Others remain skeptical of any technology intervention that might pose a threat to privacy (e.g. “Will the NYPD see my text message?  Or “I want to know more about if TXT CONNECT will be monitored on Facebook.”). For others like Male 1, wanting to be visible is a gamble worth taking so as to construct a sense of place out of a fluid constellation of tense social relations.

The young people’s questions about police surveillance during the focus group sessions informed how designers articulated backend functionality to community members and other stakeholders. The focus group discussions prompted designers to include a FAQ section on TXT CONNECT’s website (txtconnect.org, 2013) explaining, in detail, who monitors the messages and further emphasizes that all electronic and mobile media is vulnerable to external monitoring and surveillance.

For some court-involved youth, it is not only that outside surveillance might threaten a young person’s autonomy, but that having unreliable access to a cell phone and a wireless data plan might also interrupt a young person’s access to information. One of the young people I work with switched phones twice during our time working together because the young person was unable to afford the data plan and because the young person’s foster parents took the phone away. At a residential facility in New York City, young people are not allowed to have cell phones in their room, which makes privacy and access to information via cell phone, or the technology of ‘freedom’  nonexistent. While there are notable risks and benefits associated with young people in foster care and mobile media use, we know that for these young people mobile and social media, in particular, can function as an outlet for them to reconnect with others, write their place in space, and story their own lives (Fitch, 2012; Frith, 2015).


This research contributes to current literature that takes up mobility as a process wherein identities are constructed and social interactions and cultural practices are shaped. Mobility here is understood as process and as an awareness of self in proximity to other people, places, and things. Though literature already exists at the intersection of youth cultures and mobility, this work is unique in that its purpose is to enhance perspectives that rarely account for the ways youth involved in foster care and juvenile justice systems navigate spaces differently from their mainstream counterparts.

Through narrative accounts, I trace young people mobilities as sites to be (un)seen as they negotiate peer and institutional surveillance. While co-designing a mobile platform with young people for several months, I came to understand how young people involved in foster care and juvenile justice systems might negotiate identity and social practices differently than their mainstream counterparts. Revealed here is the role the mobile device plays in the experience of mobility and the construction of place. It is recommended that further research be conducted that provides empirical evidence aimed at illustrating how non-mainstream youth experience mobilities and construct place in a new era of interconnectivity and surveillance.

[1] The Community Safety Act would create an independent inspector general to oversee the New York City Police Department and allow for an expansive definition of individual social identity categories under the current law.

[2] While running for mayor of New York City, former US congressman Anthony Weiner was involved in a national sex scandal, of which he admitted to sending sexually explicit text messages to several young women. Weiner’s indiscretions were the focal point of the NYC mayoral race and national news.

[3] Since this research was published, Stop-and-Frisk has been ruled unconstitutional and the number of Black and brown people, mostly men and boys, that have been stopped, questioned, and frisked has decreased. This is primarily the result of new mayoral leadership and intense public scrutiny of New York Police Department after the unlawful killing of Eric Garner by a police officer in Staten Island. However, incidents of Stop-and-Frisk still take place disproportionately in the city’s African-American and Latino neighborhoods (Wofford, 2014).



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