Aug. 15--A teenager without a cell phone is, like, so yesterday. But
ask parents whose children have cell
phones, and chances are they'll cite a
litany of painful lessons: Kids running
up $500 monthly bills. Teenagers racking
up large fees for text messages, games
and other extras.
As cell phones become increasingly
popular with kids, such problems could
affect more families and hit home
earlier. The gadgets are now being
marketed to the elementary school set.
Wireless carriers figure they can
count on parents to invest $50 a month
or more on wireless plans for
increasingly younger customers. And with
good reason: Parents have repeatedly
shown they're willing to pay for the
peace of mind that comes from knowing
their child can call for help from
Kids have their own agenda, and
calling mom and dad doesn't top the
list. A cell phone has become an
adolescent rite of passage, a token of
social respect and a sign of
Choosing the best cell-phone calling
plan for your child is like navigating a
boisterous bazaar with competing hawkers
and glittering wares.
"It's all so confusing," said Raleigh
resident Ellen Hazel. Her daughter
Elisa, 18, has had her own cell phone
for two years. "I wish you could walk
into a store, get a cell phone and have
it be simple."
"That's how you get in contact with
all your friends," said Elisa Hazel, 18,
of Raleigh. "I don't even know my
friends' home numbers."
These classic generational tensions
get a workout during the busy
back-to-school shopping season. Wireless
marketers are quick to tap into the
"Parents are the purchasers, but the
kids influence the purchase decision,"
said Mark Fewell, senior director of
business development and media at Boost
Mobile, a prepaid wireless service for
youth. "That's why we don't market to
parents at all. We just target our
The wireless industry is bombarding
kids with promotions and celebrity
pitches. Wireless carriers advertise on
such outlets as MTV and Maxim magazine.
Alltel has signed hip hop star Lil' Flip
to create ring tones (which cost 99
cents each to download to a cell phone).
Cingular customers can get their ring
tones courtesy of rapper Missy Elliott
and other teen heroes (costing up to
And cell-phone companies are
marketing entry-level phones, such as
the FireFly, aimed at children as young
as 6. The $99 device has five buttons
that limit incoming and outgoing calls
to numbers approved by parents. Others,
including LeapFrog, Hasbro and Disney
are also entering the kiddie phone
But such marketing is attracting
A group founded by consumer activist
Ralph Nader last week denounced the
wireless marketing to children and asked
Congress to pass regulations restricting
the practice. These critics say wireless
carriers are exploiting school-age
insecurities and parental anxieties to
hook impulsive kids on the wireless
habit. Miscues by school-age cell phone
novices could mean hefty charges that
flow to the wireless companies.
In the spring of this year, 54
percent of teenagers owned a cell phone,
up from 38 percent five years ago,
according to Teenage Research Unlimited
in Northbrook, Ill. However, junior-high
and grammar-school children are still an
untapped market compared to high school
seniors and college freshmen.
Only 40 percent of youngsters ages 12
to 15 owned a cell phone this year,
compared to 69 percent of teens 18 or 19
Cell phones aren't just a cool way to
chat and text-message with friends.
They're also great portable
entertainment centers, with cameras,
games, custom ring tones and music
Even after several years of
experimenting, many parents say teens
are just not mature enough to handle
cell phones. Still, parents continue to
absorb the cost overruns for a sense of
"It's a Catch-22 situation," said
Anne Mitchell of Cary, whose 16-year-old
daughter spends several hundred of
dollars a month on wireless chit-chat.
"The only option I know is for her not
to have a phone at all."
Mitchell's daughter, Sarah Koon, has
been on four wireless plans since the
age of 13: TracFone, Cingular, Virgin
Mobile and Verizon Wireless. TracFone
and Virgin Mobile are prepaid plans that
cap calling time by the amount paid.
For the amount of time Sarah spends
on her cell phone, it became
uneconomical to keep buying calling time
on the prepaid plans. She tried Cingular
and Verizon Wireless family plans. But
they also became too expensive, because
Sarah kept going over the monthly limit
and incurring premium charges.
A seating hostess at the Olive Garden
restaurant, Sarah has a source of income
to pay her own wireless bills and now
contributes $100 a month, half the
monthly cost, to the family's plan with
Verizon Wireless. She also pays the cost
of going over the limit. Still, she's
inattentive to roaming fees and monthly
minutes, and runs over her monthly
allotment of minutes by at least $120 a
month, sometimes by as much as $500, she
"She couldn't contain herself within
these parameters," said Mitchell, an
English teacher at Cary High School. "I
need somebody to give me advice."
Meanwhile, Sarah and her mom are
thinking of switching yet again, this
time to a SunCom Wireless plan with a
flat monthly rate. It costs $69 a month
for unlimited calls, plus $10 a month
for unlimited text messaging. A caveat:
Roaming charges apply outside SunCom's
What parents often don't often
realize is that kids use cell phones
differently than adults. Kids use text
messaging, ring tones and games.
Unmonitored, these features can exact a
heavy price in extra charges. Adults
sometimes don't understand why they're
"The text messaging really adds up,"
Mitchell said. "We had a tremendous bill
from text messaging before we even knew
it cost anything or that she [Sarah] was
even doing it."
Some parents resort to grounding
their kids' cell phone privileges.
Andrea Moore, 18, of Durham, had her
cell phone privileges taken away for two
years, from ages 15 to 17, for running
over her parents' AT&T Wireless bill by
$300 a month several times and taking
out-of-state calls from an 18-year-old
guy she had met once.
For the past year, she has kept her
phone use within bounds. Andrea's
14-year-old brother Jonathan is also on
the family calling plan, now with SunCom
Wireless, and 16-year-old sister Hannah
will be added later this year.
"We have an understanding that we
call for brief information," said their
mother, Deborah Moore. "If it's going to
be long, we'll call on the land line."
Kathryn Hall of Rocky Mount is still
learning the art of self-control. The
13-year-old got her cell phone three
months ago because all her friends have
wireless phones, she said. She's already
run up her monthly bill to $500 on an
Alltel calling plan.
Her aunt, Shirley Pugh of Durham,
frowns upon Kathryn's wireless habits.
"It's too young," she said. "You
don't know who's calling who. It could
be an old man calling."
Kathryn's parents have tried
suspending her cell phone privileges for
irresponsible use, with mixed results.
"They get excited just to be talking
to anyone," Pugh said. "That's what
happens -- all day long, if they don't
have anything to do."
Below is a sampling of what's offered
for each age level.
PRETEENS (AGES 6-12): The newest
wireless demographic is targeted with
phones that come with strict parental
controls. Parents can program the phones
to call specific people -- such as mom
and dad -- and to accept incoming calls
only from pre-approved callers. Parents
pay for time in monthly blocks.
Pros: Parents can restrict incoming
and outgoing calls.
Cons: Limited service for full-priced
Features: Games, multiple ring tones
and interchangeable covers.
A few options:
The $99 phone has five keys, allowing
for preset calls only. Available from
Target and SunCom Wireless, which also
sell calling time. SunCom sells the
FireFly as a single unit or as part of a
family calling plan.
A walkie-talkie with a 2-mile range
to prevent unwelcome calls and
unmonitored conversations. Can send text
messages and take pictures. It does not
require a calling plan. Available in
Wal-Mart, Target and Circuit City. Two
units sell for about $75.
Parents can silence the ringer during
certain hours, such as school. One-touch
dialing lets parents program only the
numbers they want called. Design
resembles a stopwatch or padlock. This
$99 phone is expected to hit the market
TEENS (AGES 13-17): Can your child
say no to friends who want to borrow the
phone to make "just a few quick calls"?
If you think not, a prepaid plan may
be the best option to keep your child
from running up the meter.
Pros: No surprise bills for
compulsive yackers and texters. Once you
use up your allotment, you have to pay
to get more calling time.
Cons: At 10 cents to 50 cents per
minute generally, prepaid plans are more
expensive per minute than adding your
child to a family plan. Those can charge
as little as 5 cents per minute and have
more unlimited calling options. Prepaids
typically require that you buy
additional calling time at regular
intervals, or your account goes dead and
you lose all unused time.
Features: Many of these plans don't
require credit checks, parental approval
or a minimum age. That could be a pro or
a con, depending whether you're the
adolescent or the parent.
A few options:
Available at Best Buy, Target,
Wal-Mart, 7-Eleven and the like. Works
on the Nextel network and has a
walkie-talkie function with other users
on Nextel's network. Cost is 10 cents a
minute nights and weekends and 20 cents
a minute daytime. Unlimited
walkie-talkie calls cost $1.50 a day.
Subscribers have to add at least $20 to
Boost's prepaid card every 90 days or
the card expires.
Runs on Sprint's network and is
available at Best Buy, Wal-Mart, Target
and RadioShack. Calling time can be
bought by the minute, the day or the
month. Subscribers have to buy at least
$20 in additional calling time every 90
days or the account expires. The $29
plan for five hours a month doesn't
require renewals, but monthly
subscribers pay 10 cents each to send
text messages separately from voice
Available at outlets such as Kmart,
Lowes, Office Depot, Target and
Walgreens. Prepaid cards come in blocks
of time from 40 minutes to 400 minutes,
but users have to buy at least 40 new
minutes for $20 every 60 to 90 days or
the account expires. TracFone also
offers a one-year prepaid card that does
not require reactivation during the
year. Users of some phones have to pay
extra for incoming text messages.
Major carriers such as Cingular and
Verizon Wireless offer their own prepaid
plans geared for the youth market.
YOUNG ADULTS (AGES 18-22): The most
economical option is to add your high
schooler or college student to your
family calling plan, which can cost as
little as $10 a month for an extra line.
Family plans require budgeting monthly
But wireless carriers leave it to you
to track your time. The trick is to
coordinate between family plan members,
who may live in different towns, to keep
them from exceeding the monthly limit.
Once you go over, it's like overdrawing
your checking account.
Pros: Family plans are the cheapest
way to go, usually with unlimited nights
and weekend calls. Calls between members
of the same network (such as Cingular,
Verizon Wireless) are also usually
unlimited. There's usually a minimum age
required and teens on the plan have an
adult co-signer. Members of a family
plan typically enjoy unlimited calls to
Cons: You pay a premium if you exceed
your monthly limit, which is easy do
when sending or receiving text messages
and digital photos. Conversely, if you
don't use all your time for the month,
they typically don't roll over, but just
go to waste.
Popular features such as text
messaging and sending digital images
typically cost extra.
Features: Parents can buy text
messaging in discount packages, instead
of paying by the message. Cingular,
Verizon Wireless and others let
customers block incoming text messages
at no charge.
Sprint customers who exceed their
monthly time limit aren't charged by the
minute -- up to 45 cents per minute --
but rather get automatic blocks of time
valued at 20 cents per minute.
Cingular lets customers roll over
unused time for up to a year from any
given month (unused January minutes
expire the following January).
Alltel allows families to designate a
land-line phone -- typically a home
phone -- to accept unlimited calls from
members on the Alltel family plan.
All carriers let plan members check
time used from their phone. But some
carriers, like Cingular, only show
minutes for individual phones in the
plan. Sprint and Verizon Wireless show
the total time used by all plan members
A few options: Cingular Wireless,
Verizon Wireless, Nextel, Sprint PCS and
Alltel all serve North Carolina.
PARENTS IN CHARGE: Tips for parents
who are getting their youngsters a cell
-- Sit down with your child and
explain the rules up front.
Set a limit on how much time they can
use each month and how many text
messages they can send and receive.
Explain peak and off-peak calling
times. Explain other features of your
plan, such as the circumstances under
which the plan allows unlimited calling.
-- Make clear how much each minute
costs and how much your child will owe
if the limit is exceeded.
The child must be held accountable
and pay out of pocket (from allowance or
job) for exceeding limits.
If the child does not meet his or her
obligations, and does not pay bills in
an agreed upon time, the phone will be
-- Go over monthly bills, whether or
not your child has gone over the limit.
This way they will know their usage
each month. Reviewing bills will
familiarize children with the
responsibility of monthly bills.
-- If your child can't control his or
her phone use and can't pay bills on
time, take the phone away, per contract.
If you set a consequence, you must
Source: The National Parenting