Mom, Let's Talk
A brand-new batch of cell phones takes aim at kids as young as 5


Louise Lee

Business Week


Okay, it's off to first grade. Got the pencil case, lunch box, and...cell phone? Yes, with companies marketing calling plans to "tweens," ages 8 to 12, it was only a matter of time before cell phones found a place on their younger brothers' and sisters' back-to-school lists.

The handsets are often brightly colored, with a chunky design to fit firmly into smaller hands. Some are simple, forgoing many of the complicated buttons and keys on a typical adult model. And thanks to plan features that let parents control whom kids can call and when, little Johnny and Jilly can't run up staggering bills talking to friends and text messaging around the clock.

Although specialty phones are targeted primarily at the tween population, certain designs will appeal to an even younger crowd. Consider that some 10.5million tweens are expected to carry a cell phone by 2010, double the number in 2005, according to a study by the Yankee Group, a Boston researcher. Many will be using conventional phones and minutes from family plans.

Of the kiddie models available, Walt Disney's (DIS ) Disney Mobile phones most resemble typical handsets, but the company sells accessories such as cases decorated with Tigger the tiger from Winnie the Pooh. The phones range in price from free (with the purchase of a calling plan) to $200 for a fancy model with Bluetooth, a camera with still and video capabilities, and other features.

Disney's calling plans, which are far more elaborate than competing services, start at $25 a month for 200 minutes for an individual child. Contracts run two years. The "call control" feature lets a parent preselect, by the day and time, when the child can make or receive calls. That means you can disable the phone during school hours, although you can select a few "always-on" numbers that can be dialed in an emergency. The "family monitor" feature lets parents preset how many text messages or downloads the child is allowed per month.

Other phones, such as Modeci's TicTalk, look more like toys. The silver-gray oval-shaped handset ($99) replaces the standard keypad with a scrolling wheel to control a pull-down menu of phone numbers. TicTalk's service features are stripped-down compared with Disney's but still offer parental controls. Parents can prepay for a bucket of minutes—$100 for 400 minutes, for instance—with no contract. Unused minutes expire after 90 days.

Even more toylike is Firefly Mobile's new $50 glowPhone, expected to reach shelves in mid-September. Available in black or pink and designed for kids as young as 5, the glowPhone has no keypad. Instead, the rectangular unit has a simple spread of five large buttons, including one marked with a figure in a dress that can be set to dial Mom and a corresponding key for Dad. Like TicTalk's, Firefly's service doesn't require a contract. Calls will run as low as 10 cents a minute, with a 35 cents daily access charge.

As attractive as these packages may seem, you should ask yourself whether your child can handle a cell phone while still needing training wheels. According to Harvard University's Center on Media and Child Health, cell phones provide yet another route for bullies, scammers, and even sexual predators to contact kids. Calls and text messages can be distracting and interfere with daily routines. Still, cell phones are convenient and might be crucial in an emergency. At the very least, they offer a quick math lesson: If you get 200 minutes a month, how many minutes on average can you talk per day?