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Keeping Kids Connected: Selling Cells is Easy, Controlling Talk Time is Not

Knight Ridder, August 15, 2005


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 anywhere.

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 independence.

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 conflicting agendas.

"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 market segment."

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 $2.49).

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 market.

But such marketing is attracting critics.

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 years old.

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 downloads.

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 security.

"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 admitted.

"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 four-state region.

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 being charged.

"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 phone.

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 next month.

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 time.


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 minutes.

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 each other.

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 collectively.

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 phone:

-- 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 taken away.

-- 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 follow through.

Source: The National Parenting Center, www.tnpc.com



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