Kids' Cellphones: What Next?

One Boston television station begins every late-night newscast with the following question: "It's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your children are?"

Making sure that children arrive home safely each night has been an age-old concern of parents.

But increasingly they are able to find out much more: Technology companies are offering Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in family cars that can send alerts to the cellphones of parents if a teen driver goes too fast, travels at odd hours, or leaves a specified geographic area.

Meanwhile, parents usually have little trouble persuading their teens that they need a cellphone. The trick is getting them to turn it on and off at appropriate times, use it with courtesy, and not run up the phone bill!

But if keeping teens within constant cellphone range relieves parental concern, why not give one to younger children, too? New mobile phones from Walt Disney Company and another from Firefly Mobile are aimed at 8-to-12-year-olds, the "tween" generation. The Disney phone reportedly will offer familiar Disney graphics and games, as well as text messaging and ring tones. The brightly colored Firefly has no numbered keys, is smaller to fit a child's hand, and lets parents control who calls in or out. Other companies are expected to include GPS systems that can pinpoint a child's location.

Some child advocates worry kiddie phones are just one more screen for children to stare into and become lost, instead of enjoying face-to-face companionship.

Parents have a tricky path to walk between being responsible guardians and submitting to marketing ploys that play on their fears. When, if ever, they provide children with cellphones, they need to remember that no electronic tether can substitute for a relationship of trust with their child.

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