August 3rd, 2005

The Flip Side of Cell Phones for Kids

By Cindy Richards
Chicago Sun-Times

As parents, it’s easy sometimes to feel like the world is conspiring to make our already tough job even more difficult. And nothing can make us feel that way faster than going up against the massive marketing machine that is the American economy.

The latest onslaught against our children comes in the form of kiddie cell phones and credit cards. Direct marketing to children already has proved highly successful for fast food companies, sugary cereal makers and producers of other things that are bad for kids. There’s no reason to believe it won’t work just as well for the cell phone and credit card companies.

My 11-year-old son, who heads to middle school this year, is the proud owner of a new cell phone. We broke down and bought him one two weeks ago. Now that he is venturing to places we can’t see from our front porch, it seemed prudent for him to have a way to reach us and for us to have a way to reach him.

It hasn’t worked that way, of course. While I was waiting in line at an office supply superstore, he and his sister wanted to look around. I told him I would call when I was ready to leave. I did. Got his voice mail. Still had to collect the kids the old-fashioned way, by walking around the store yelling their names.

He is getting plenty of use out of the phone, nevertheless. He spends hours figuring out the programming, changing the ring tone and otherwise playing with the thing. If I had that much time—and the inclination to spend it on my cell phone—I might actually figure out the speed-dialing feature.

It turns out the amount of time he spends playing with his new toy may be the least of my worries. According to Ralph Nader’s Commercial Alert, there’s the potential for much more sinister use of his cell phone.

In a letter sent last week, 30 child advocates asked members of Congress to investigate whether kiddie cell phones would make children more vulnerable to pedophiles, harm their health and be disruptive in churches, schools and life in general.

The answer to that last point is: Of course they will be disruptive. Adults using cell phones are disruptive. Why would children be any more respectful of the people around them?

But concerns about pedophiles and the impact on a child’s health are real issues that deserve some investigation. Another point in the letter—the one about advertisers seeing kiddie phones as a direct link to kiddie consumers—is just as scary.

"Already, marketers are leaping to send advertisements via mobile phones," the letter said. "For example, Advertising Age reported on July 11 that many corporations, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Timex, are moving ‘from small [mobile phone advertising] tests to all-out campaign[s].’ "

Our children already are bombarded with commercial messages that get them to nag us to buy those sugary cereals, designer duds and all those other things they don’t need.

And now, thanks to another marketing juggernaut, they’ll be able to act on that advertising message immediately. All they have to do is turn on the computer and whip out their Hello Kitty credit card. That’s right, a Hello Kitty-branded credit card.

My kids love getting gift cards as presents because they look like credit cards. It makes them feel grown-up.

And I’m perfectly fine with kids feeling grown-up and pretending they have credit cards. But telling them they need actual credit cards? In a country where bankruptcy filings are at all-time highs and families are collapsing under the weight of their credit card debt? It’s unconscionable.

It’s true this is a parental responsibility thing—if we don’t give our kids cell phones and credit cards, they can’t be abused by the marketers and other monsters who would prey upon them.

But shouldn’t we be able to give them a cell phone in the hope of keeping them safe and not have to worry we have opened them up to more danger?


  1. Posted by Tanya on August 11th, 2005

    I agree with the concerns I’ve heard raised here and other places in regards to the issue of marketing cell phones to children. There is another big concern that I have not yet heard raised, and it is possibly the concern I would consider the biggest. Technology has a way of acting as a babysitter for children. A 6-year-old child, for example, should have no need for a cell phone, because that child needs a responsible adult with him/her to GUIDE and TEACH him/her to make good choices. Cell phones can’t teach anything like that. I am concerned that cell phones will give parents a false sense of security as they leave children alone more (they can call if there’s a problem, right?) when what children really need is TIME with their parents and other caring and responsible adults. Children already spend too much time being taught and guided by television programs that teach negative values.

  2. Posted by Ellen on August 11th, 2005

    I dread the idea of ads on cell phones.  The majority of citizens in the US recently made it clear telemarketing was unacceptable, and we got legislation to opt out via no-call lists.  The day my cell phone becomes a vehicle for ads or telemarketing calls is the day I will cancel the service.  Unfortunately our culture views children as the ultimate exploitable group-- vulnerable, without representation (no vote) and marketers already exploit them with ads on TV and product placement in entertainment that they know no parent monitors.  Cell phones will provide another vehicle for their relentless attempts to reach kids.  Parents must demand protection for kids. 

  3. Posted by Fitz on August 12th, 2005

    I agree with the above viewpoints.  Not to be alarmist but, does any technology savvy person know of the ongoing debate to place GPS chips into the cellular phones?  I believe the FCC mandated in 1999 that a locator chip put into all cell phones.  The mandate was meant for safety (ie: identfying the exact location of a 9-1-1 emergency cell phone call) but there has been concern for privacy issues and commercial abuse.  Basically a company can track the exact location of cell phone customers for product advertising/product placement. 

    Here is an easy scenario of commercialism: an impressionable child with a cell phone walking by a shopping mall billboard & the billboard becomes a personalized ad directed towards him/her.  How would your child react?

    The cell phone is a wonderful tool of safety and convienience but without vigilance it can become a horrible hindrance to our freedoms.

  4. Posted by Shaona on August 29th, 2005

    Hell, I wish my fellow cellphone lovers(and those who itch for one) knew about this. I agree with all the concerns posted above wholeheartedly. I cant really see why all the major companies would bombard young cellphone users with ads anyway-we consume their products way too much. Oh yeah, I forgot, they will always want more.

  5. Posted by Desiree on September 13th, 2005

    I agree with the concerns being addressed, but feel that there can be good use of cell phones for children. Some of those same concerns led me to purchase one of my children a cell phone. I have two young boys. The oldest will be eight in just a few months. My husband and I work separate shifts to avoid strangers with our children, however there is a small gap of time (2 hours). During this time my youngest is at my home with Grandma (who does not have a car). My eldest needs to get from school to home, so he walks 1/8 of a mile. It is not a great distance, but naturally I am concerned. I purchased the Firefly, for that specific reason. I was concerned with the price of the phone so have had many discussions with him about when, where and how he can use it. He is only able to contact family and in turn they are the only ones who can contact him. He does not carry the phone other times and has done very well. It has given him a way to contact help if needed and help to calm at least one of my fears.

  6. Posted by Rachel on October 9th, 2005

    The author says that her ELEVEN yr.-old goes places without her.  Why?  Does she not want to be bothered with actually doing something with her kids? 

  7. Posted by Sherrell on January 30th, 2006

    i think that cellphones are good because your kid could stay in contact but then bad because my daughter was killed by talking to older men on the phone!!!!
    sorry i got to go it’s bringing back memories!!

  8. Posted by Ivy on March 2nd, 2006

    I happen to be a kid wanting a cellhpone and i think that all this is tottally wrong. look at it from a kids point of veiw. i go places and my mom needs to keep trac of me. i am very responsable and will not lose it. and saying that kids dont need a cellphone is wrong becouse i could really use one!

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