Is Your Child Old Enough for a Cell Phone?

Be prepared for the new wave of cell phone technology designed to target 6 to 12 year olds.

Watch Out! Cell Phones for Tweens Are Here!

Cell phone companies are promoting new products to children (and their parents). Is your child ready for the responsibility of a cell phone? Security and cost are two issues to consider when making the decision.

The pros and cons of security:

Some of the kiddie cell phones have parental controls. For example, with the Firefly cell phone, parents need a PIN number to enter phone numbers that their child can call. TickTalk has programmable controls on when the phone can ring.

The Wherifone has a GPS device so that children’s whereabouts can be tracked.

Camera phones provide security. There are cases where children have scared away potential abductors by trying to photograph them.

On the negative side, older teens often have Web-enabled cell phones, giving them access to the Internet when parents can’t monitor their activity.

Cost: If you think your child can handle the responsibility of staying within a plan, here’s what you need to know before choosing one:

When phones are Web-enabled, parents are often surprised by the size of the phone bill. Customers can choose to go without this feature, but increasingly Web-browsing and text messaging capabilities are bundled with extra weekend and night minutes.

If a phone is Web-enabled, kids have access to games. Cell phone gaming is the newest market for companies and is expected to be big business in the next few years. Keep in mind, too, that there is a billion-dollar porn cell phone business in Europe and Asia, which is expected to hit the U.S. market soon.

According to the market analysis company, The Yankee Group, the biggest trend among teen cell phone users is pre-paid SIM (subscriber identity module) cards/family plan hybrids.

The Kiddie Cell Phone Companies

Currently available are the Firefly, Leapfrog’s TickTalk and Wherify Wireless’s

The Firefly offers:

“Mom” and “Dad” speed-dial keys

A parent-programmed, PIN-protected phone list

A 911 button for emergency calls

The TickTalk can:

Make and receive calls only to pre-approved numbers

Monitor minutes used

Double as an educational game platform

The Wherifone comes with:

A GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking device so that parents can locate their child 24/7

A 911 button

A two-way voice speaker system

Many more kiddie cell phones are in the production pipeline:

Disney and Sprint plan to launch Disney Mobile in 2006

Mattel is hard at work on a Barbie-branded cell phone

Not to be outdone, toy company Hasbro has a cell phone in the works, too

The Issue of Marketing to Kids

Commercial Alert, a group associated with Ralph Nader, sent letters in July, 2005, to members of Congress asking for action to regulate the marketing of cell phones to children. Co-founder Gary Ruskin describes Commercial Alert as “a non-profit formed to protect children and communities from commercialization.”

Commercial Alert is concerned that:

Kiddie cell phones will enable child predators to contact children without their parents’ knowledge

Parents will not be able to control the bills incurred by their children

The issue of whether brain and ear tumors are caused by cell phones is still unresolved

Children will be targeted by advertisers through text messaging, “adver-games” and the usual TV, radio and print advertising

“We do a lot of work trying to stop marketing to children in schools,” says Ruskin. “The spark [for writing the letter to Congress] was the Disney/Sprint deal. That was the thing that put us over the edge. But we’ve been watching over the last nine months as the cell phone industry has targeted our nation’s kids. They obviously see our kids as their next cash cow.”

Some Hard Numbers

Susan Beacham, CEO and co-founder of Money Savvy Generation, researched some of the kiddie phones. “When you sign up for TickTalk,” she notes, “you have to sign up for $15 for an hour of minutes, and if I’m doing my math right that’s 25 cents a minute.”

The actual price of the phone is another factor to keep in mind. “The TickTalk is $99,” says Beacham. “There’s another one that’s coming out: Mattel’s My Scene. It’s $79, but it’s a fully functional, no parental controls, cell phone. And of course it’s got all kind of Barbie images.”

Beacham suggests, “It’s cheaper to just add a line to your own cell phone plan. It doesn’t have parental controls on it, but it does through your own parental control when you get the bill. On the days when your child went nuts, she’s either grounded or her allowance is garnished. And, by the way, since you’re talking to someone who tries to empower kids with how to manage their own money, these kids should be paying for this with their own money. Now a 6-year-old is not going to be able to pay for this and that’s why I’m so against it. Because it is an adult expense. It’s an expense that a 13-year-old should be taking out of their allowance.”

Child Psychology

Eileen Gallo, a psychotherapist specializing in issues of family and money, believes that, “A lot of parents are doing it for peace of mind. And a lot of parents are willing to pay for the peace of mind. How far they want to go is really up to them. I think that there does have to be limits though and it’s up to the parents to set the limits. They could do a pre-paid cell phone plan. They could have limits on the number of minutes the child can talk.”

Gallo illustrates with an example: “I have a friend whose daughter has a cell phone. She and her boyfriend were text-messaging and the bill was $700. The girl’s parents were aghast. They created all kinds of jobs for her so she could pay it off. It took her a long time to pay it off. And they disabled the text-messaging options. So that’s where the limits come in. Parents need to educate themselves and sit down with the child. They need to say, ‘This is for you and the primary reason is to stay in touch, for our peace of mind as parents. This is the way it should be used.'”

A Helpful Suggestion

One way to test if your child is responsible enough to have her own cell phone is to give her a toy cell phone to carry around for one semester. If she doesn’t lose the toy phone, she’s ready to keep track of a real cell phone.