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The flip side of cell phones for kids


Chicago Sun-Times, August 3, 2005

As parents, it's easy sometimes to feel like the world is conspiring to make our already tough job even more difficult. And nothing can make us feel that way faster than going up against the massive marketing machine that is the American economy.

The latest onslaught against our children comes in the form of kiddie cell phones and credit cards. Direct marketing to children already has proved highly successful for fast food companies, sugary cereal makers and producers of other things that are bad for kids. There's no reason to believe it won't work just as well for the cell phone and credit card companies.

My 11-year-old son, who heads to middle school this year, is the proud owner of a new cell phone. We broke down and bought him one two weeks ago. Now that he is venturing to places we can't see from our front porch, it seemed prudent for him to have a way to reach us and for us to have a way to reach him.

It hasn't worked that way, of course. While I was waiting in line at an office supply superstore, he and his sister wanted to look around. I told him I would call when I was ready to leave. I did. Got his voice mail. Still had to collect the kids the old-fashioned way, by walking around the store yelling their names.

He is getting plenty of use out of the phone, nevertheless. He spends hours figuring out the programming, changing the ring tone and otherwise playing with the thing. If I had that much time -- and the inclination to spend it on my cell phone -- I might actually figure out the speed-dialing feature.

It turns out the amount of time he spends playing with his new toy may be the least of my worries. According to Ralph Nader's Commercial Alert, there's the potential for much more sinister use of his cell phone.

In a letter sent last week, 30 child advocates asked members of Congress to investigate whether kiddie cell phones would make children more vulnerable to pedophiles, harm their health and be disruptive in churches, schools and life in general.

The answer to that last point is: Of course they will be disruptive. Adults using cell phones are disruptive. Why would children be any more respectful of the people around them?

But concerns about pedophiles and the impact on a child's health are real issues that deserve some investigation. Another point in the letter -- the one about advertisers seeing kiddie phones as a direct link to kiddie consumers -- is just as scary.

"Already, marketers are leaping to send advertisements via mobile phones," the letter said. "For example, Advertising Age reported on July 11 that many corporations, including McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Timex, are moving 'from small [mobile phone advertising] tests to all-out campaign[s].' "

Our children already are bombarded with commercial messages that get them to nag us to buy those sugary cereals, designer duds and all those other things they don't need.

And now, thanks to another marketing juggernaut, they'll be able to act on that advertising message immediately. All they have to do is turn on the computer and whip out their Hello Kitty credit card. That's right, a Hello Kitty-branded credit card.

My kids love getting gift cards as presents because they look like credit cards. It makes them feel grown-up.

And I'm perfectly fine with kids feeling grown-up and pretending they have credit cards. But telling them they need actual credit cards? In a country where bankruptcy filings are at all-time highs and families are collapsing under the weight of their credit card debt? It's unconscionable.

It's true this is a parental responsibility thing -- if we don't give our kids cell phones and credit cards, they can't be abused by the marketers and other monsters who would prey upon them.

But shouldn't we be able to give them a cell phone in the hope of keeping them safe and not have to worry we have opened them up to more danger?



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