The Kids Are All Wired

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 6, 2005; 9:30 AM

I discovered during the past several weeks that the popularity of cell phones is rivaled only by the frustration they inspire.

I wrote several columns about the handy little gadgets, each time prompting an overwhelming response from readers eager to share their stories of wireless phone users demonstrating their lack of social tact and surplus of chutzpah.

Speaking of chutzpah, reader Don Feinfeld related a story that he picked up from a man waiting for his luggage at the baggage carousel at JFK Airport. They had just returned from Israel, Feinfeld said, and the man was telling him what happened when he went to pray at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem:

"The cell phone of the man next to him went off. Instead of turning the phone off, the call recipient conducted a business transaction right then and there. After the caller was finished, the man who told me the story told the callee that he was interrupting people's prayers. The man with the phone replied, 'Get used to it, buddy; it's the 21st century!'"

Of course, that story could be an urban legend shifting into high gear on the Israeli party circuit. Apocryphal or not, it's one more manifestation of an inevitable backlash against a technology that has entrenched itself as part of our daily lives. Mobile devices aren't going away, and sooner or later even the holdouts will find themselves acquiring cell phones or similar items. What offends, however, is the gap between our speed of adoption of these new devices and the plodding development of etiquette to govern their use.

Many of us also recoil when we see how the popularity of new technology allows profit-hungry corporations to drill through the bedrock of our social niceties. In this case, I'm talking about children and the Walt Disney Co. Mickey and the gang are trying to sell mobile phones to "tweens," the preadolescent set that has proven so adept over the years at channeling money toward Disney-themed activities.

Here's the news from the Wall Street Journal: "The service, to be called Disney Mobile, will travel over the wireless network of Sprint Corp., the country's third-largest cellphone operator in terms of subscribers. But the phones and service will carry the Disney brand and be sold by Disney. ... All the major wireless carriers offer family add-on plans that allow subscribers to add their children, in some cases, for as little as $10 a month extra. By contrast, Disney says its service will be solely aimed at the needs of the family. It therefore could be the first to appeal to children, potentially pressuring parents to pick a carrier based on the desires of their children."

Industry analysts say that the cell phone market penetration is softening a bit (Sensitive readers will forgive that turn of phrase), but eight-year-olds?

Don't get too upset; it's not the only news of its kind. The San Jose Mercury News ran an article on the Firefly, the new cell phone for kids that goes on sale for $99.99 this week at Target. The phone runs on Cingular Wireless's network, and includes 30 minutes of prepaid talk time, with additional minutes costing 25 cents each. The Merc noted that the phone only allows calls to and from numbers pre-approved by Mom and Dad, so it's safe for the tots.

I consider it a starter unit. Gotta get 'em hooked while they're young.

European mobile phone company Orange knows this. It struck a deal with In-Fusio to put that company's digital version of Ohio Art Co.'s Etch-A-Sketch onto its cell phones, the Associated Press reported: "The traditional Etch-A-Sketch works by turning two knobs to move a stylus up, down and diagonally along the inside of the plastic screen, etching lines through a coating of metallic powder. On the cellular version, users move the virtual 'stylus' around the phone's screen by pressing the number pad or directional arrows. One distinction that Etch-A-Sketch aficionados might mourn is that erasing a cellular sketch does not involve vigorous shaking. But In-Fusio has an alternative: When a user presses the '0' key to erase a drawing, the phone also vibrates."

How precious.

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