Cell-phone companies are marketing their products to younger consumers.
By ELAINE GASTON
For children, having a cell phone is way cool. For parents, equipping their young offspring with cell phones gives them a tracking device.
In this technologically advanced society, more young people are embracing cell phones as part of their ever-growing electronic arsenal of gadgetry. It's not enough these days to have just a TV, VCR and stereo in the bedroom. Children these days are wired with DVD/CD players, MP3 players, iPods, video games and cellular phones.
More than one-third of 11- to 14-year-olds have their own cell phones, representing the fastest-growing segment of the population getting cell phones, according to Consumer Reports. The Yankee Group, a research group, predicts the tween market -- defined as 8- to 12-year-olds -- will double by 2010, resulting in carriers finding new ways to market and improve products for the targeted audience.
Cellular phone companies have already begun marketing the devices to younger audiences. For example, the Firefly, which is sold at retail stores as well as through Cingular and other smaller carriers, is designed for ages 8-12 and features parental controls.
"If you would have asked me a few years ago, I would have said 'no, no, no' to preteens having cell phones," said Dr. Regina Milteer with the American Academy of Pediatrics.
What changed her mind
Milteer changed her tune shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when she bought a cell phone for her then 14-year-old daughter.
"We were here near the Pentagon and she was in school," Milteer said. "I couldn't make contact with her that day. I had no way to reassure her everything was OK. That was the final straw for me."
Equipping her daughter with a cell phone brought her peace of mind. "I initially got it for safety, then she got to playing sports, and it became a convenience," Milteer said.
Ask parents why they furnish their young children with cell phones and most agree it makes a great safety tool for the child and is convenient for the parent.
"I really wanted him to have one so he can reach me and wasn't having to look for a phone," said Lori Harper, a Myrtle Beach, S.C., resident whose son Christian got his cell phone for his 13th birthday last year. "He was at the age when he was going to be away from me more. I made the decision when I couldn't locate him at a football game."
Harper had already begun lending her son her cell phone when he'd venture off for long bike rides.
A recent situation outside Carolina Forest High and Middle schools in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in which a teenager was stabbed to death demonstrated how cell phones at the fingertips of children can come in handy. Many had called their parents to let them know they were OK.
"I'd be horrified if he wanted to reach me and had to wait behind someone else to use a phone to get to me," Harper said. "There're no pay phones anymore."
Christian's cell phone lists about 40 telephone numbers of friends and family.
"It's easy to get in touch with my parents and it helps me keep track of my friends," Christian said. "I use it once or twice a day."
Although Christian's cell phone features unlimited use, there are no other special features, such as access to the Internet or text messaging, at his disposal.
Bethany Spainhour, 13, however, has some special features. She sports a camera phone, but was told by her grandmother -- who furnishes the cell phone -- not to access the Internet or use the text messaging.
"My friends always text me, but I try not to text back," Bethany said. "I mainly use it a lot after school to call my parents. And I use it every time I get home to talk to my friends."
Angel Vaughn, Bethany's mother, agreed to the cell phone for her daughter. It was a birthday gift when she turned 11.
"At first she was on a plan that included 200 minutes," Vaughn said. "They upgraded, and now she's got unlimited calls."
Vaughn said her daughter uses the phone to check in, and it allows her to keep tabs on her daughter.
"The only basic rule we gave her was that she not accept calls after 9 o'clock," Vaughn said. "She's a good girl. And she's been responsible."
Twelve-year-old Candice Creel got her cell phone for Christmas last year. She got tired of wrestling her younger brother Collin for the house phone.
"He kept taking the phone, and I wanted to call my friends," Candice said.
Her parents, Heather and Robert Creel, agreed she was ready, but set some restrictions.
"My dad said I couldn't text or go on the Internet," Candice said. "I'm glad I have it because my parents trust me enough to be responsible with it. And I've taken very good care of it."
Candice only uses it for emergencies, to check in with her parents and to call friends with questions about homework.
"I don't hang out on the phone," she said.
Heather Creel said she was reluctant, but assented once Candice started baby-sitting.
"That way we always had contact when she was over there," Heather Creel said. "It's a good way to keep up with your kids."
Word of advice
While most people agree cell phones are helpful for parents, they shouldn't use the devices as a way to shirk adult supervision, Milteer said.
"Less than 12 is too young," the doctor said. "I think children less than 12, even in the school system, should be supervised at all times. Those children are under the purview of an adult, so they shouldn't need a cell phone."
Parents also should set limits and restrictions with cell phone use and teach children about cell phone etiquette.
"Cell phones can become a positive communication tool if parents teach their children and teens cell phone etiquette," said Dianne Marsch, director of the Etiquette School of the Carolinas. "Parents still remain the best role models, but can model poor cell phone etiquette if they use their cell phones in restaurants, theaters, concerts and while walking down the street."