In the latest example of how technology’s rapid evolution has created new challenges for educators, some U.K. and U.S. students are downloading a cell phone ring tone that is too high-pitched for most adults to hear–giving them yet another way to pass notes or other information surreptitiously in class.

Known as “Teen Buzz,” the ring tone is spread from phone to phone via text messaging and Bluetooth technology.

The ring tone is a spin-off of technology that originally was meant to repel teenagers–not help them. A Welsh security company developed the tone to help shopkeepers disperse young people loitering in front of their stores while leaving adults unaffected. The company called its product the “Mosquito.”

Compound Security’s Mosquito device, once installed on a building, emits a high-pitched sound, like a constant insect buzzing, to drive loitering teens away. The product is based on the idea that, as adults age, they are less able to hear high-frequency sounds.

The Mosquito’s buzzing registers at 17 kilohertz (khz). As people age, many develop what is known as presbycusis, or aging ear–a loss of the ability to hear higher-frequency sounds. Young adults might be able to hear the sound, but older adults are less likely to hear it.

With this new high-frequency ring tone, students reportedly can receive text-message alerts on their cell phones without the teacher knowing.

Donna Lewis, a teacher in Manhattan, said her colleague played the ring for a classroom of first-graders–and all of them could hear it, while the adults couldn’t hear anything.

Howard Stapleton, managing director of Compound Security, said he was “amazed” by the children’s creativity. He said he was aware that the Teen Buzz craze had been sweeping through the area’s schools. “I think it is a bit of a giggle,” he said.

Stapleton said the Mosquito emits a modulated 17 khz sound, whereas the mobile phone ring tone is a constant 14.4 khz, high-frequency tone.

“This is the result of an astute teenager with a laptop,” said Stapleton. “A teacher would only be able to hear the sound from a meter away. Teenagers could hear it from much further away.”

The New York Times reported that news of the ring tone first hit British newspapers last month. Since then, the paper said, Simon Morris, marketing director for Compound Security, said his company has received so much attention–none of it resulting in a profit, because the ring tone was, in effect, pirated–that he and Stapleton decided to start selling a ring tone of their own.

It is called Mosquitotone, and it is now advertised as “the authentic Mosquito ring tone.”

Education groups contacted by eSchool News said they were only just learning of the new ring tone themselves, and none had any comment about how to combat its use in schools, other than to keep a more vigilant watch for cell-phone use in classrooms.

“It’s just another example of how kids are using technology quicker than people expect,” said a spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.


Compound Security

American Federation of Teachers