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Dispatch: Toddler Calling

When Roseann Styczynski tells people her son got his first cell phone at age six, she’s prepared for the “Are you crazy?” look.

But while a 2007 poll by MSN/Zogby found that 47% of adults believed children should be in high school before owning a cell phone, parents are apparently talking outside of two sides of their mouth. A more recent survey in the U.K. pegged the average age of first-time cell phone owners at eight. Plenty of parents out there are buying phones for very little kids.

Styczynski says her job at Verizon had nothing to do with her decision to buy her then-six-year-old, Matthew, the (since discontinued) Migo, a mobile made for kids that would allow them to dial only four numbers plus 911. There was no voice mail, no texting, and GPS came standard.

“We were at a birthday party at one of those giant party places and while I was chatting with another mom, my son ran into the men’s room to go to the bathroom,” Styczynski explains. “When I noticed that he wasn’t there, with the assistance of a few other moms I scoured the place and finally found him. He was gone for about five minutes, but it was the longest five minutes of my life.”

The next day, she bought the phone.

“I do get that look, that ‘You got your kid a cell phone?’ look. But when I tell them my story, they say, ‘Oh’,” the Saratoga Springs, New York, mom says. A second passes while it clicks. “Then they say, ‘Oh, does Verizon still have that phone?’”

Many parents would be hard-pressed to find fault with Styczyinski’s reasoning. We’ve all been at that giant fun-center with what sounds like a thousand screaming first graders and a man dressed like a mouse riling them up.

It’s why Daniel Neal created Kajeet, a phone company that bills itself as “the cell phone service made 4 kids.” The number one request from parents is the GPS phone finder, he says, a feature the father of two preteens made available from the get-go. Founded by a group of fathers, Kajeet was a company formed to fill what seemed to be a niche market – cell phones with family-specific services. It’s working. The company incorporated in 2003, and has been making deals with the likes of Turner Broadcasting and Amazon to bring their phones and services to the masses.

And no wonder – a recent U.S. Cellular survey estimated 60% of teens have cell phones. According to market research from the Yankee Group, 54% of eight- to twelve-year-olds will have cell phones within the next three years. You don’t even have to go to a phone company to get one – today the Firefly is available right at your local toy store.

“If you’ve seen a teen today or a preteen, you’ll notice that their cell phones are almost tethered to them,” says psychologist Dr. Jerry Weichman, PhD., author of How to Deal. Every patient in his busy Newport Beach, California, adolescent practice walks in with a cell phone.

Weichman isn’t a critic of cell phones or even of kids with cell phones. He is, however, a critic of parents who don’t put their foot down.

“A cell phone has to come with a lot of rules and regulations,” he says. “They need to start off with clearly defined rules – no forbidden sites, no naked pictures, no explicit texts.”

The problem of kids taking naked pictures and sending them out via cell phone, commonly known as sexting, is not just media hype, Weichman says. “I’ve seen girls as young as eleven sending naked pictures and being caught. The boys are relentless as far as trying to get the pictures.”

The stories of kids sending out thousands of texts in one month aren’t hype either. Peter Robertson of Ohio found that out the first month after he and his wife finally broke down and bought their thirteen-and-a-half-year-old daughter a cell phone.

“We resisted a long time, but our target date kept eroding,” Robertson says. “Originally it was when she got her driver’s license. Then it was when she entered high school. Then it became halfway through eighth grade.”

In her first month, their daughter sent 1,200 texts.

Fortunately, the Robertsons had an unlimited text messaging plan. They also had a lot of rules in place: “She has to pay any overages from voice minutes. It can’t stay overnight with her in her room. She has to have it put away and silenced during family time, meals, etc.,” Robertson explains. “Car rides with her are a little fuzzier, but her father is a bit of a Crackberry addict himself, so this struggle to define its role in her life has helped me reflect on my own!”

Adults’ dependence on cell phones plays a major role in the increased dependence children have on them, says Dr. Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School.

“They market it to parents as a safety device, and they market it to kids as being cool,” Linn says. She’s of the mind that children do not need cell phones until at least the teen years; that’s when her teenager got her first phone.

“There are very few times that younger children are away from adults,” Linn says. “Parents say they need them in case they’re running late to pick up their child from soccer practice, but if any coach abandoned a child on a soccer field, that would be the end of a coach’s career.”

Wireless companies are preying on America’s “culture of fear.”Linn thinks wireless companies are preying on America’s “culture of fear.” Her proof? The same GPS system used by parents to track their kids is being used by companies who are marketing to kids via text message. Such companies constantly call for kids to text in their votes (think American Idol) or to sign up for giveaways and encouraging them to make “free” downloads. Once the companies have the kids’ phone numbers, they’re fair game.

Which comes back to the rules and regulations – and taking a long hard look at why you’re getting your child a cell phone. Parents buy cell phones for their kids, technically, but we’re also buying the cell phones for us.

“Non-traditional parenting calls for technology,” Kajeet’s Neal says. “Think about a single mom out there working two jobs. She doesn’t love her child any less than a two-parent household. But she needs logistical support, and phones are just that.”

They help two-parent families too. Jay Hemmaday of Portland, Oregon activated an old handset on his family plan for $10 a month when his daughter was eleven, just after moving back to the Portland area. With new friends, a new school and so many changes, it was meant to be an emergency phone, to reach Jay and his wife. The Hemmadys now both work out of the house, and they call it their “peace of mind.”

“We want her to continue to build up her independence, to not have mom or dad around all the time, yet [to feel] safe and confident that we can be quickly reached,” he notes. “We wanted her to gain the confidence of owning something important. We wanted her to learn to become more responsible and not feel like she was not being trusted, as she was indeed growing up and becoming more responsible with other things.”

Wireless technology is part of the twenty-first century, and cell phones aren’t going away. As parents, we have to figure out how they work in their lives – or don’t. But we have to take control.

“As far as when to get a cell phone, to me it’s not an age as much as it is a maturity level,” Weichman explains.

As Robertson reminds his daughter, “We bought this cell phone and laptop, so we own them. I am very clear that it is within my rights to read anything on either device. And we have her passwords.”

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