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Scram! Getting rid of pesky teenagers with an ear-piercing sound

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A gray box in the lobby of a New York City apartment building emits an annoying sound that only teenagers can hear.

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American Towers apartment building in Queens, New York City, used to have groups of teenagers hang inside the lobby and outside on the sidewalk at all hours of the day. The installation of the Mosquito two months ago has driven them away.

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Geneva Lindsay, a 14-year-old resident, says the sound coming from the little gray box on the wall is like a cat hissing. While she didn't mind the group of teens who hung out in the lobby on a daily basis, her mother did.

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A solitary lobby in a New York City apartment is ordinarily the site of daily gatherings of teenagers. A little gray box on the wall emits an annoying, high-frequency sound that has driven them away.

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A gray box in the lobby of a New York City apartment building emits an annoying sound that only teenagers can hear.

Fear and nausea were facts of daily life for Christopher Ramirez and his neighbors, but the Mosquito made it safe again for them to walk through the lobby of their Queens apartment building.

Before the Mosquito, teens chronically hung out there smoking, drinking and leaving trash in the low-ceiling, cinder-block area. Some even urinated in a nearby stairwell, making life for residents almost unbearable.

“You would see blunt wrappers everywhere, tobacco everywhere, said Ramirez, a compact 18-year-old who lives in the building with his parents. Before the Mosquito, “people used to be scared to come in the lobby.”

Nestled behind a protective grill high on the lobby wall--near stale signs that read “no smoking” and “no loitering”-- the 6-inch by 5-inch gray box sold under the brand name Mosquito sends an irritating, high-frequency sound only people age 13 to 25 can hear. As a result, they find another place to loiter.

It’s a technology with a new purpose, fresh on the market in the United States and Canada, where police, school administrators and property managers laud the device as an effective means of scattering troublesome teens without laying a hand on them.

“It sounds like a cat hissing,” said Geneva Lindsay, a 14-year-old resident of the Queens apartment building. Others describe it as both a screeching, grating sound and a slightly annoying buzzing sound.

The Mosquito takes advantage of the early stages of presbycusis, also known as age-related hearing loss. Hearing happens when specialized cells in the inner ear convert acoustic energy into nerve impulses that are transmitted to the brain. As people grow older these cells die and the ability to perceive high-pitched sounds diminishes.

Lt. Christopher Cowan of the Columbia, S.C., police department recently used the Mosquito to break up an open-air drug market.

It’s a “non-invasive technique for policing which is hands-off,” Cowan said. “It allows us to deal with situations with minimal resources, both financial and physical.”

Doug Hartl, manager of security and loss prevention for Western Canada’s Mac’s Convenience Stores, has installed eight devices and is planning to put up another 10 because the device is cheaper than a security guard.

“If they start loitering in the front, the dealer activates it by remote, and the people disperse,” he said.

But critics in Scotland and England, where the device was invented and more than 3,500 units have been sold since 2006, are mounting a campaign against its usage.

They see the device as a use of technology that discriminates based on age because it scatters otherwise innocuous gatherings of kids. Advocates for children’s rights in England have begun a campaign against the technology called Buzz Off, and are creating a map of locations where it is used.

They want the Mosquito banned.

“These devices hurt babies, toddlers and innocent young people,” according to an online petition of the Buzz Off campaign. It “can be used to indiscriminately attack young people even when they are not causing a problem.”

Sean Mann, the manager of the Queens apartment building, found the $1,400 device online, and was initially skeptical. When he installed it in the lobby about two months ago the kids left. Some of them simply migrated to other floors, beyond the 60-foot reach of the device’s 18 kilohertz frequency.

The constant and unwanted presence of kids in the lobby was a “cat and mouse game,” said Mann. “It was potentially leading into a confrontation between youth and the superintendent.”

He mounted the small gray box and within days the issue was resolved.

Ramirez said he is happy the kids in the lobby are gone, but he can still hear the device’s whine in his first-floor apartment. He deals with it by turning on the television.

The property manager insists that it can’t go through doors. Up until now he has received no complaints from residents about negative effects.

Hartl, whose concern is the security of the Canadian convenience stores, is pleased, too. “It has worked very effectively, no complaints,” he said, “but probably because it’s really new.”

E-mail: tmd2115@columbia.edu