Cell phone companies are promoting new products to children (and their parents). Is your child ready for the responsibility of a cell phone?

Issues parents should consider

The pros and cons of security

  • On the positive side, some kiddie cell phones have parental controls. For example, the Firefly cell phone requires a parent to use a PIN number to enter the phone numbers that the child will be able call.
  • The Wherifone uses a GPS device to track the whereabouts of a child carrying the phone.
  • Camera phones can provide a certain measure of security. There have been 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 cell phone pornography 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.

Kiddie cell phone companies

Currently available are the Firefly and Wherify Wireless’s Wherifone.

The Firefly offers:

  • “Mom” and “Dad” speed-dial keys
  • A parent-programmed, PIN-protected phone list
  • A 911 button for emergency calls
  • Coverage is available in certain parts of the country only

The Wherifone comes with:

  • A Global Positioning System to track the position of your child 24/7
  • An “SOS” button
  • Five preprogrammable dialing buttons so that parents can control costs

Other kiddie cell phones include:

  • The Verizon Migo, which has a simple keypad and a compact design for small hands
  • The TicTalk, which comes with five Leapfrog learning games

The issue of marketing to kids

In July of 2005, Commercial Alert, a group associated with Ralph Nader, asked Congress to start regulating the marketing of cell phones to children. Cofounder Gary Ruskin describes Commercial Alert as “a nonprofit 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. “We’ve been watching 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 TicTalk,” she notes, “you have to buy 100 minutes of air time for $25. That’s 25 cents a minute.” The actual price of the phone is another factor to keep in mind. “The TicTalk is $99,” says Beacham.

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 parents are buying their children cell phones for the sense of security it brings. “A lot of parents are willing to pay for the peace of mind,” she says. “How far they want to go is really up to them. I think there has 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 duggestion

One way to test if a younger child is responsible enough to have a 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.