Seattle Times  [Printer-friendly version]
February 22, 2006


[Rachel's introduction: A few years ago Verizon, the phone company,
invoked the precautionary principle, saying children should not use
cell phones because the hazards were poorly understood. Now as the
evidence of harm from exposure to electromagnetic radiation mounts
up, Verizon is aggressively marketing cell phones to children. Money
trumps precaution.]

By Jolayne Houtz

Tristan Pasterick of Sammamish started clamoring for a cellphone in
first grade after admiring his older cousins sporting snazzy new

Six seemed too young to Tristan's parents. They waited until last
summer, just before the 8-year-old entered third grade.

"He wanted a puppy or a sibling, and he wasn't going to get either of
those, so we went with a cellphone instead," joked his mother, Rachel
Pasterick. "This was cheaper and cleaner."

Tristan, now 9, keeps his cellphone charged and stashed in his
backpack, next to a bit of emergency cash and some extra pencils.

When the school bell rings, Tristan flips open his phone as he walks
home with friends or while waiting for his mom to pick him up.

"It's a way for us to keep in touch, and for peace of mind -- his and
mine," Rachel Pasterick said.

Phones for tweens

A new market is emerging for more kid-friendly phones, styled to
appeal to children but with parental controls and limited features:
Most don't have cameras, voice mail or text messaging and don't allow
downloading or Web access. Here are some of the options:


The colorful Firefly from Firefly Mobile ($99) has big buttons
featuring Mom and Dad stick figures for speed-dialing parents and an
address book for up to 22 preapproved phone numbers. There's also an
optional call-screening mode so the phone accepts only calls from
parent-programmed numbers. Kids can personalize the phone with
ringtones, animations, screen colors and optional accessories.

LG Migo

This bright-green Verizon Wireless phone (about $80) has four parent-
programmable buttons and an emergency button instead of a full keypad.
It has a speakerphone and optional accessories.


This model by Enfora (about $100) has parental controls and features
educational games by LeapFrog that kids can play to earn more talk
time. Parents can program acceptable phone numbers online, and they
also can set "quiet times" when the phone will not ring.

Disney Mobile

Disney and Sprint are teaming up to launch Disney Mobile this summer
to appeal to families wanting a family wireless service with exclusive
Disney content.


Hasbro's Tiger Electronics introduced this two-way radio ($74.99 for
two units) last year. The walkie-talkies look like cellphones and let
kids talk with family and friends within a two-mile radius who also
have a CHATNOW.

MyScene Mobile

Mattel and Single Touch Interactive launched this phone (about $80)
tied to the Barbie MyScene toy line for tween girls. The phone comes
with customized accessories and an online "reward board," where
parents can create a list of chores for kids -- Make your bed! Do your
homework! -- that allow them to earn extra talk time.


Wherify Wireless' phone ($150), to be sold in the U.S. this year, has
a Global Positioning System locator feature to find the phone -- or
the kid holding it -- "within feet, in about a minute." Tweens --
children from ages 8 to 12 -- are the new frontier for the cellphone
industry. In the past year, a half-dozen companies have announced
products aimed at the lunchbox set and the parents trying to keep tabs
on them.

Kids, of course, are drawn to the phones' "cool factor." Children as
young as 6 are packing phones inside their Hello Kitty and Spiderman
backpacks. Principals of Seattle-area elementary schools say this is
the first year cellphones have been noticeable on their campuses. Many
are creating school policies governing cellphone use, like those in
place at middle and high schools, where cellphones are more common.

Children's advocates and safety experts say mobile phones in the hands
of young children raise some questions: How should parents monitor a
child's phone use? Will a phone lead to a false sense of security? Who
else might get access to the child's phone number?

"If your child has a handheld device that can connect them to the
Internet, you have no control over that anymore," said Susan Linn, co-
founder of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Parents "are
allowing corporations, to say nothing of pedophiles, unfettered access
to their kids."

Peace of mind

As the chief scheduler and driver for a "typical, triple-tasking
family" with three children, Britt Weber of Normandy Park worried
about getting stuck in traffic while chauffeuring her children to
their activities.

She and her husband decided that 9-year-old Madelyn was ready for a
cellphone this year as third grade began, and added her phone to the
family's calling plan for $15 a month.

Their seventh-grade son also has a cellphone. So far, their 5-year-old
son remains cell-less.

Madelyn is allowed to use her cell only for outgoing calls and in
emergencies after school, Weber said. It has five numbers programmed
in: Mom, Dad, home, brother and one friend.

"I just felt easier, knowing that she could call me," Weber said.
"What's my child and my peace of mind worth?"

And it's already come in handy. Weber once forgot to pick up her
daughter after school.

"She called me and said, 'Mom, I don't see you here," but she didn't
panic," Weber said.

Still, Weber said she's gotten some grief for letting Madelyn go

"All her friends' parents said, 'Why did you get her that? Now I'll
have to," " Weber said.


The real target for cellphone companies is kids aged 10 to 16: the
ones "who are going to spend considerable money" to download
ringtones, graphics and games for their phones, said Ben Rogers, vice
president of technology research with GfK NOP Technology, an
international market-research firm.

But by appealing to 6- to 10-year-olds, companies hope to hook kids on
technology early and entice them to push their parents for upgrades,
Rogers said.

Phones like the Firefly and the Migo, with limited features and
parental controls, won't appeal to kids much past the age of 10, he

"I just don't see them agreeing to carry a phone that can only call
Mom, Dad and the police," he said.

"It's almost a bait-and-switch," Rogers said, explaining that
companies pitch the safety message to parents, who can then expect
their children to soon be clamoring for a fully loaded phone.

Companies also are experimenting with advertising by cellphone.

"This will be a way to bypass parents and talk to kids directly," said
Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert. The Portland-
based consumer-watchdog group is pushing Congress to investigate the
sale and marketing of mobile phones to young children.

Staying safe

Some law-enforcement officials like the idea of enabling "instant
check-in" with parents, but they say cellphones in the hands of young
children raise some safety concerns.

A cellphone with all the latest features makes a child more accessible
to anyone, said Seattle Police Sgt. Leanne Shirey, who also runs a
nonprofit education organization called The Internet and Your Child.

"If you... monitor who they talk to at home," Shirey asked, "why would
you hand them a phone" you can't monitor?

Still, a phone with parental controls and limited features, coupled
with clear rules about phone use, could be a good tool for families,
said Michael Chiu, public-information officer for Bellevue Police.
Chiu said a cellphone could help by enabling a child to make a quick
call to Mom before accepting a ride with a neighbor, for example.

But Chiu said he hopes parents remember that children still need to be
taught how to be safe, phone or no phone.

A way to touch base

Many parents see mobile phones for kids as a way to "parent on the
go," to extend their oversight and remotely cover scheduling gaps.

Sally Brady opted to buy her oldest son, Jack, "the cheapest phone I
could find" and a pay-as-you-go plan when he entered middle school in
Issaquah this year.

The school district's late-start schedule on Wednesdays prevents
Brady, a legal secretary in downtown Seattle, from being there when
her son boards the bus that day.

Now Jack and a friend, each with a cellphone, head for the bus
together, and Jack sends a text message to his mom when he's safely

"He thinks he's cool to have it, and I think it makes him feel better
on Wednesdays," Brady said.

But it's not without headaches. Occasionally, Jack forgets to text
message from the bus, leading his mom to call the school in a panic to
make sure he's there.

For the first couple months Jack had the phone, he received occasional
calls from people apparently at a nightclub -- calls intended for the
person who previously had Jack's number.

And Jack sometimes forgets to charge his phone.

"It's one more thing for me to remember to do," Brady admitted.

Many families say they are careful to create rules about how and when
their children can use their phones.

Teresa Walter of Kirkland has 10-year-old twins who started school
this year with their own cellphones.

The twins know their parents can see all the calls they make and know
they must abide by school rules to keep the phones out of sight. They
also know they can't share their phones with friends, and that they'll
be expected to pay if their calls push the family over its monthly
allotment of minutes.

"It's really for convenience," Walter said.

Whether they're being dropped off at swim-team practice or missing
home during a sleepover, "I just want them to know they can touch base
with me anytime."

Jolayne Houtz: 206-464-3122 or

Copyright 2006 The Seattle Times Company