Dialed In: Cell Phones for Kids

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When I was a kid, I always wanted to play with the gadgets that grownups had--telephones, walkie-talkies, typewriters, vacuum cleaners, you name it. For each of these devices, there was always a plastic, nonworking version for kids.

Things are a little different in the cell phone world. Phone makers and toy companies are making kid-friendly phones that function like the real thing--or close to it.

The phones are aimed at kids between 8 and 12 years old (aka "tweens"), and they give parents control over a handset's incoming and outgoing calls.

Parent-Controlled Phones

Enfora TicTalk

Enfora's $99 TicTalk lets parents authorize certain numbers to call in and dial out; parents can also control how and when the phone is used.

TicTalk looks and functions more like a walkie-talkie than a standard cell phone. It lacks a keypad and is equipped with a monochrome LCD screen showing caller ID, the time, and remaining battery life. To place a call, kids navigate an on-screen menu to choose from a list of authorized phone numbers. A scrolling button on the right side of the handset controls navigation. During a call, kids can hold the device to their ear, use the speaker phone, or plug in an earbud.

Parents must set up an account for the phone on Enfora's Web site. There, they can program up to 23 numbers for family and friends (including an emergency number that can be programmed to dial 911 or any other number). To get service on the unit, parents must buy a prepaid Enfora SIM card. Costs start at $25 for 100 minutes, and the card expires 90 days after purchase. Activation is free. Parents can set a limit on the number of minutes their child can use in a given time period. TicTalk works on a GSM network, though no carrier has been announced yet. The handset runs on a rechargeable lithium-ion battery and comes with an AC charger.

To make TicTalk more appealing to kids, the device comes preloaded with five educational games from LeapFrog: Fact Attack, Hangman, Math Defender, Monkey Spelling, and Monkey Math. Kids can also record and play back music or voice memos. The record function lets kids create ring tones as well.

The Firefly

Although TicTalk is the latest product in this category of cell phones, it isn't the first. Firefly Mobile announced a kid-friendly handset in March and began shipping the product shortly after. Like TicTalk, Firefly is very compact and lacks a number pad; instead, it has a screen and a few control buttons. For details on Firefly, read Senior Editor Yardena Arar's "A Cell Phone for Kids."

Wherifone GPS Locator Phone

While you're at it, you should also check out her blog entry about Wherify's Wherifone GPS Locator Phone, a GPS-enabled handset that lets users call preassigned numbers, as well as allows parents to track their kids' whereabouts.

It seems that conventional mobile handset manufacturers want a piece of the phones-for-kids action, too. Rumors of an LG Electronics-branded handset that looks very similar to Firefly's phone are circulating at various blog sites, including Engadget, MobileBurn, Phone Scoop, and SlashPhone. Phone Scoop says the handset "is tentatively called the VX-1000. It is a small CDMA device with a simplified interface consisting of a monochrome display, talk/end keys, side volume keys, a 911 key, and four speed-dial keys that can be programmed by parents." Phone Scoop also mentions that the "draft manual refers to Verizon Wireless multiple times." Neither LG Electronics nor Verizon would comment on these reports.

Glorified Walkie-Talkie

ChatNow handset

Toy maker Hasbro has a different concept in mind. This fall, the company's Tiger Electronics arm will offer ChatNow, two-way radios that let kids stay in touch by "calling" or text-messaging friends who are within a two-mile radius. Parents don't have to pay for a phone plan because ChatNow doesn't use a cellular network. They simply recharge the walkie-talkie handsets so their kids can continue to use them.

Here's the irony: Unlike TicTalk and Firefly, which look like walkie-talkies but function as cell phones, ChatNow handsets look like a slider- or clamshell-style phone, complete with a standard phone keypad, a black-and-white screen, and even a built-in camera--but they function as walkie-talkies. Each ChatNow handset has a ten-digit "Buddy Number"; once you dial a friend's number, there's even a push-to-talk button you must press to carry on a conversation, à la walkie-talkie.

With the camera, kids can take pictures of a friend and use that image as a photo caller ID. The handsets store up to 30 images and come with ten ring tones. For text messaging, kids can tap letters via the keypad or choose from simple, preset messages. Much like regular walkie-talkies, the $75 ChatNow package will include two handsets. ChatNow should be in stores this fall.

Service Plans Geared for Kids

Some folks may find ChatNow, Firefly, TicTalk, and Wherifone too toy-like and would rather go for the real thing. Enter Disney Mobile and Mattel.

Next year Disney plans to launch a wireless service using the Sprint PCS network. No doubt Disney will offer handsets and entertainment content that tout popular Disney characters such as Mickey, Minnie, and Donald. Sprint will supply the back-end technology and Disney will handle the rest, including product development, distribution, marketing, customer relations, and billing.

Meanwhile, Single Touch Interactive offers handsets and prepaid phone service using Mattel's My Scene brand. The company provides a Nokia candybar-style handset and lets tweens personalize their phones by choosing one of three My Scene faceplates. Kids also get My Scene wallpapers and ring tones.

Your Call: Convenience or Headache?

Several children's advocacy groups, including Alliance for Childhood, Commercial Alert, and National Consumers League, are asking Congress to investigate the marketing of mobile phones to kids. They are concerned about children's safety, privacy, education, and health. Privacy advocates worry that pedophiles may use cell phones to contact children. They also argue that cell phones will become a vehicle for showing advertisements to children and ultimately reaching their parents' wallets.

Advocates also worry about potential health risks. The British National Radiological Protection Board, which has recently joined with the UK's Health Protection Agency, warns of the possibility that mobile phones could cause benign tumors of the ear and brain. The NRPB urges parents not to provide cell phones to children under 8 years old.

Some of the phone makers, including Enfora, market their phones to children as young as 6 years old. That's awfully young. I'm not a parent, but if I were, I would shy away from giving my kid a phone. Some parents may disagree, and the manufacturers point out that a cell phone could help kids in an emergency--which is certainly true. If you'd like to share your opinion, write to me.

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