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Cell phones in kindergarten?
By Cindy Billhartz
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Wednesday, Sep. 21 2005

In another six or seven years, when Hudson Sharp, 2, is attending school and
the extracurricular activities that go with it, his parents might see things
differently.

But for now, Jennifer and Jason Sharp of St. Louis see no need to equip young
Hudson with a cell phone.

"Kids have everything, and it’s unnecessary," said Jennifer Sharp, 30, a
medical resident at St. Louis University. "We’ve been getting along for years
and years and years without them. What was society like before?"

Sharp’s question is rhetorical. It’s also irrelevant where some cell phone
manufacturers and service providers are concerned.

Because they’ve managed to nearly saturate the adult and teen markets with
their products, the wireless industry is now lining up parents of small
children in their marketing crosshairs. They’re pushing family-share plans,
prepaid contracts and credit card-size phones with new-fangled features galore.
Among them: parental controls and global positioning systems that track
children to within 10 feet of their location.

Several local parents and school administrators seemed surprised and puzzled by
the suggestion that elementary school pupils would need cell phones at all.

"We are always with them, or they are always with a responsible adult," said
Susan Boyle, a Kirkwood mother of two children, ages 8 and 5.

Mary Witt, dean of students at Andrews Academy in Creve Coeur, said, "If
parents need to contact their child, they can always call the office and we’ll
pull them out of the classroom. We use the old-fashion method." Cell phones are
prohibited in the academy’s kindergarten through sixth-grade classrooms.

Ashley Cadwell, headmaster of the St. Michael School in Clayton, says only one
of the 44 pupils has a cell phone, and that pupil uses it only for emergency
situations; never for yakking with friends.

"I have a hard time rationalizing why you would need one, and I’m afraid that
if they were to proliferate they’d be a terrible distraction," he said.
"Children have enough on their minds without being overloaded with another
mechanism."

Cell phones are not prohibited at Captain Elementary School in Clayton, says
principal Sandy Rosell, because they haven’t had a problem with pupils using
them during class. But Rosell knows of only two or three pupils who have them.

"I can see, as a mom, why parents would want their children to have a phone
because it’s easy access particularly to make arrangements for before and after
school," she said. "Still, I’m not sure I like seeing young children with a
cell phone. It seems like they’re growing up too fast, but maybe that’s just an
archaic way of looking at things."

Jason Sharp, 35, Hudson’s stay-at-home father and a former elementary school
teacher, not only sees them as unwarranted, but outright irritating. It wasn’t
unusual, he said, for pupils in the third- and fourth-grade classes he taught
in a Chicago suburb to use their cell phones as psychological weapons.

"They were always wanting to call their parents over things such as
confrontations with teachers," he said. "At first I would say, ‘All right, I’ll
talk to them; get them on the phone.’ But then it just became tedious."

Cell phone woes

Tedium isn’t the only potential downside of children with cell phones. So are
out-of-control phone bills, incessant text-messaging during class and potential
health risks.

Earlier this year, the United Kingdom’s Independent Expert Group on Mobile
Phones warned that the developing nervous systems of children might be more
vulnerable to radio frequency radiation exposure and that the tissues in their
heads absorb more radioactive energy than those of adults. (They noted there
was no conclusive evidence to this effect. Yet.)

Then there are the significant social changes that could come as a result of
young people using phones.

Research analysts like David Linsalata at IDC, a telecommunications consulting
company, are trying to understand what, if any, those changes are.

"For instance," says Linsalata, "when you have kids who have a lot of cell
phones that means they can be text messaging and having a phone conversation
with friend at the same time. They also might have no qualms about answering
the phone while talking face-to-face with someone. When adults do that, it’s
considered rude. So, there are implications for pushing down this age barrier
in how the kids interact with each other."

Earlier this year, Rogers Wireless of Canada began marketing the Firefly, a
glow-in-the-dark cell phone designed specifically for children. It has mom and
dad speed-dial keys as well as a 911-button for emergency calls. It’s sold at
Target stores nationwide.

Later this year, Wal-Mart will begin selling a similar phone called the
Wherifone by Wherify Wireless. It’s glowless, but does include a global
positioning system. Both phones have only five keys and allow parents to limit
who the child calls and who calls the child, thereby preventing costly phone
bills and distractions. Motorola plans to launch a similar phone in coming
months. Mattel and Disney also plan to release cell phones aimed at youngsters
soon.

When Witt heard of the Firefly and Wherifone, she admitted that such a phone
would certainly serve a need.

"Most of our parents are two-career parents who work long hours, so it’s
possible they need it outside of school," said Witt at Andrews Academy. "I’m
not saying they shouldn’t have them. But my personal opinion is there’s no need
for a child at our school to have one (inside the classroom)."

Witt worries that once one or two children get a phone — Firefly, Wherifone or
otherwise — other children will want one, too. She also believes there are too
many things marketed to children that shouldn’t be and that as a society, we no
longer protect children.

"I think parents individually do," she said. "They’re screening what their
children see and what they do at home. But I don’t think the companies
understand what they’re doing when they put these things in kids’ hands."

Instant access

Ashley Caldwell, the headmaster of St. Michael, is all for peer groups
communicating with each other, but wonders why an 11-year-old needs a cell
phone to do so.

"I’m an old guy, and (believe) that when you’re home and have your homework
done and you want to call a friend on the landline where mom and dad have
control over the amount of time you’re on the phone, that would be all right,"
he said.

Caldwell does understand why parents who live in dicey neighborhoods or have an
ill family member would want a way of reaching their child instantly. For them,
phones with parental controls would be perfect.

"But going to the next level to just having instant access to certain number of
friends, you just wonder why. What’s wrong with the phone on the wall when you
get home?" he asked.

Linsalata says phones like the Firefly and Wherifone could sow the seeds for
future wireless revenue and maybe even subscriber growth.

"Let’s say kids get the phones, even though they’re not designed for
communicating between friends, they do have the potential to turn that kid into
a separate customer," he said. "Suddenly the Firefly is too kiddish. Suddenly
they want to download games. Suddenly they want different ringtones and text
messaging."

Suddenly there’s a steady stream of tweens becoming teens who are hooked on
wireless technology and feel a dire need for regular cell phones.

For Caldwell, this all conjured what he called a 21st century science fiction
vision. And it wasn’t pretty.

"I can just see this culture of kids with unlimited cell phone time and
earphones attached as they’re walking around the playground talking to other
kids on other playgrounds," he said. "It’d look like a New York City street
only they’d all be 11-years-old."
 

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