Telecom for Tots

By Robert MacMillan Staff Writer
Friday, August 5, 2005; 9:36 AM

A big part of a journalist's training is learning to avoid writing stories that ask questions. We're not paid to ask questions with our articles, any J-school prof will teach you -- we answer them.

It's a good thing this is a column because I'd like to launch today's edition with a question: How young is too young to own a cell phone?

Beats me. I have no idea. I know, however, that it just doesn't sit right with me whenever I read stories about how the billion-dollar cell-phone industry is spending a sizable chunk of that change to convince parents that their 6-year-olds need one.

The Wall Street Journal tackled this issue today with its Virginia Woolf-inspired "A Phone of Their Own."

"In the latest entry into what is quickly becoming a crowded market, wireless company Enfora LP and educational toy maker LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. are about to unveil a cell phone especially designed for kids." the paper reported. "The new phone, called TicTalk and aimed at kids ages 6 and up, joins a growing lineup of competitors that includes Mattel Inc., Hasbro Inc., Firefly Mobile Inc. and Walt Disney Co."

When I was 6, we were nearing the end of the Carter administration. Supertramp was wailing about "Breakfast in America" and we had a rotary phone that I was occasionally allowed to answer if I demonstrated proper telecom etiquette. (Mom told me that my customary greeting -- "Who is this?" -- was unacceptable.)

I remember the phone as an intimidating privilege, something that I could use but only under the strictest conditions. If the Leapfrog story is any indication, parental attitudes have gotten a little more lax.

Or maybe not. The Journal provided the background on why this is a newsworthy topic: "The race to capture the 'tween set has popped up this year, amid a longstanding debate about the propriety of giving kids their own device. Some parents like the security of having their children always reachable by cellphone, no matter where they go. But others hesitate for fear of running up triple-digit phone bills -- and worries over whom children may be talking to when they're unsupervised. Many child-development experts say the research on children and cellphones is scant but as with any new technology, boundaries and rules have to be set."

Leapfrog's phone, for example, comes with prepaid packages of minutes, something the Journal noted could be used as a reward/punishment system: "Companies say parents can reward or punish children by buying up or cutting down phone time."

It may be the latest wave of the future, but not everybody thinks it's such a hot idea.

AdAge reported that Ralph Nader's group is leading a coalition of 30 health, education and privacy advocates in a bid to get Congress to pass regulations on marketing cell phones to children.

"A letter to members of the Senate and House Commerce Committees said the telecommunications industry is targeting young children as its next growth market, a move called 'one of the worst ideas to appear in the American economy in a long time,'" AdAge wrote.

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