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Hot new market for cellphones: young kids

Jolayne Houtz
Seattle Times consumer-affairs reporter, February 23, 2006

Tristan Pasterick of Sammamish started clamoring for a cellphone in first grade after admiring his older cousins sporting snazzy new phones.

Six seemed too young to Tristan's parents. They waited until last summer, just before the 8-year-old entered third grade.

"He wanted a puppy or a sibling, and he wasn't going to get either of those, so we went with a cellphone instead," joked his mother, Rachel Pasterick. "This was cheaper and cleaner."

Tristan, now 9, keeps his cellphone charged and stashed in his backpack, next to a bit of emergency cash and some extra pencils.

When the school bell rings, Tristan flips open his phone as he walks home with friends or while waiting for his mom to pick him up.

"It's a way for us to keep in touch, and for peace of mind his and mine," Rachel Pasterick said

Tweens children from ages 8 to 12 are the new frontier for the cellphone industry. In the past year, a half-dozen companies have announced products aimed at the lunchbox set and the parents trying to keep tabs on them.

Kids, of course, are drawn to the phones' "cool factor." Children as young as 6 are packing phones inside their Hello Kitty and Spiderman backpacks. Principals of Seattle-area elementary schools say this is the first year cellphones have been noticeable on their campuses. Many are creating school policies governing cellphone use, like those in place at middle and high schools, where cellphones are more common.

Children's advocates and safety experts say mobile phones in the hands of young children raise some questions: How should parents monitor a child's phone use? Will a phone lead to a false sense of security? Who else might get access to the child's phone number?

"If your child has a handheld device that can connect them to the Internet, you have no control over that anymore," said Susan Linn, co-founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Parents "are allowing corporations, to say nothing of pedophiles, unfettered access to their kids."

Peace of mind

As the chief scheduler and driver for a "typical, triple-tasking family" with three children, Britt Weber of Normandy Park worried about getting stuck in traffic while chauffeuring her children to their activities.

She and her husband decided that 9-year-old Madelyn was ready for a cellphone this year as third grade began, and added her phone to the family's calling plan for $15 a month.

Their seventh-grade son also has a cellphone. So far, their 5-year-old son remains cell-less.

Madelyn is allowed to use her cell only for outgoing calls and in emergencies after school, Weber said. It has five numbers programmed in: Mom, Dad, home, brother and one friend.

"I just felt easier, knowing that she could call me," Weber said. "What's my child and my peace of mind worth?"

And it's already come in handy. Weber once forgot to pick up her daughter after school.

"She called me and said, 'Mom, I don't see you here,' but she didn't panic," Weber said.

Still, Weber said she's gotten some grief for letting Madelyn go wireless.

"All her friends' parents said, 'Why did you get her that? Now I'll have to,' " Weber said.


The real target for cellphone companies is kids aged 10 to 16: the ones "who are going to spend considerable money" to download ringtones, graphics and games for their phones, said Ben Rogers, vice president of technology research with GfK NOP Technology, an international market-research firm.

But by appealing to 6- to 10-year-olds, companies hope to hook kids on technology early and entice them to push their parents for upgrades, Rogers said.

Phones like the Firefly and the Migo, with limited features and parental controls, won't appeal to kids much past the age of 10, he predicted.

"I just don't see them agreeing to carry a phone that can only call Mom, Dad and the police," he said.

"It's almost a bait-and-switch," Rogers said, explaining that companies pitch the safety message to parents, who can then expect their children to soon be clamoring for a fully loaded phone.

Companies also are experimenting with advertising by cellphone.

"This will be a way to bypass parents and talk to kids directly," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. The Portland-based consumer-watchdog group is pushing Congress to investigate the sale and marketing of mobile phones to young children.

Staying safe

Some law-enforcement officials like the idea of enabling "instant check-in" with parents, but they say cellphones in the hands of young children raise some safety concerns.

A cellphone with all the latest features makes a child more accessible to anyone, said Seattle Police Sgt. Leanne Shirey, who also runs a nonprofit education organization called The Internet and Your Child.

"If you ... monitor who they talk to at home," Shirey asked, "why would you hand them a phone" you can't monitor?

Still, a phone with parental controls and limited features, coupled with clear rules about phone use, could be a good tool for families, said Michael Chiu, public-information officer for Bellevue Police. Chiu said a cellphone could help by enabling a child to make a quick call to Mom before accepting a ride with a neighbor, for example.

But Chiu said he hopes parents remember that children still need to be taught how to be safe, phone or no phone.

A way to touch base

Many parents see mobile phones for kids as a way to "parent on the go," to extend their oversight and remotely cover scheduling gaps.

Sally Brady opted to buy her oldest son, Jack, "the cheapest phone I could find" and a pay-as-you-go plan when he entered middle school in Issaquah this year.

The school district's late-start schedule on Wednesdays prevents Brady, a legal secretary in downtown Seattle, from being there when her son boards the bus that day.

Now Jack and a friend, each with a cellphone, head for the bus together, and Jack sends a text message to his mom when he's safely aboard.

"He thinks he's cool to have it, and I think it makes him feel better on Wednesdays," Brady said.

But it's not without headaches. Occasionally, Jack forgets to text message from the bus, leading his mom to call the school in a panic to make sure he's there.

For the first couple months Jack had the phone, he received occasional calls from people apparently at a nightclub calls intended for the person who previously had Jack's number.

And Jack sometimes forgets to charge his phone.

"It's one more thing for me to remember to do," Brady admitted.

Many families say they are careful to create rules about how and when their children can use their phones.

Teresa Walter of Kirkland has 10-year-old twins who started school this year with their own cellphones.

The twins know their parents can see all the calls they make and know they must abide by school rules to keep the phones out of sight. They also know they can't share their phones with friends, and that they'll be expected to pay if their calls push the family over its monthly allotment of minutes.

"It's really for convenience," Walter said.

Whether they're being dropped off at swim-team practice or missing home during a sleepover, "I just want them to know they can touch base with me anytime."

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