A boom in tools for keeping tabs on kids

Following terrorist attacks, parents buy cellphones and pagers for their children

For some parents, what once seemed like a frivolous accessory for the nouveau chic child has now become a necessity.

More and more adults are buying cellphones, pagers, and other wireless devices in order to stay in closer contact with their children. The demand, analysts say, is driven by mounting concerns about terrorism, and is reminiscent of how some families responded to the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School.

Uncertainty over a child's safety is much more pervasive now, and so is parents' commitment to high-tech tools. "We absolutely have more interest from parents now," says Rick Byrne, a salesman at Boston Cellular in Waltham, Mass. "Pretty much right after Sept. 11 more family plans started going out the door."

The diversity of products and prices is daunting. But perhaps less so, compared with parents' task of figuring out what suits their children's tastes.

Cellphones, for example, have become much more popular than pagers among those ages 10 to 19, according to Knox Bricken, an analyst with market research firm Yankee Group. Indeed, even before Sept. 11, this group already comprised 32 percent of all wireless users.

Popular accessories include plastic phone covers, games, instant messaging, and musical ring tones that last up to 30 seconds. (Ringing tunes by Britney Spears are a popular choice, but not, perhaps, for high school males.)

Many parents opt for prepaid cellphones that contain a limited number of minutes, thereby cutting down on excessive use. Also, prepaid phones do not require a contract, allowing the under-18 crowd to assume some responsibility by purchasing phone time themselves.

Service provider Voicestream, for example, offers 125 prepaid minutes for $25 a month. But the company's regular plan, at 250 minutes for $29 a month, is a bit more cost-effective.

Many parents have started turning to family plans, which allow up to five friends or family members to share one plan and one fee. For example, AT&T's Shared Advantage plan allows two cellphone users to share a bucket of 500 minutes Monday through Friday, and 1,000 weekend minutes for $60 a month. Add $20 for each additional user. "We've seen an uptick in people purchasing plans like this that offer family benefits," says Rich Blase, an AT&T spokesman.

The newest - and most casual - option: disposable cellphones. The first disposables, sold by Hop-on Wireless of Garden Grove, Calif., are due in stores this month. The phones offer 60 minutes of service for $30, but do not receive incoming calls, and coverage is spotty in the Midwest and South. Also, the Hop-on design, highlighted by its signature kangaroo mascot, may not appeal to older teens.

For those who struggle to place calls because of an overcrowded spectrum or lack of cellphone towers, pagers may bring reliable relief.

Pagers run on separate networks from cellular phones and coverage is far more extensive. Not only are they less expensive - about $15 per month for basic service - pagers are also less obtrusive than cellphones, and will not interrupt class with an obnoxious shrill tone when a message comes through.

Motorola's Talkabout T900 series - in "razberry ice," "mystic blue," and "aqua ice" - are among the most desireable pagers among kids. They feature two-way text messaging and e-mail. The device costs about $150, but rebates are prevalent. For the most part, pagers have lost their stigma as the tool of choice for drug dealers, perhaps in part because of the perky design.

BlackBerry, a two-way pager equipped with e-mail, Internet access, and some calendar features, is generally the choice of the business set. Running at about $400, plus $40 a month, it may be out of most families' price range, although its reliability is unmatched, in part because of the way in which units are networked.

Finally, two-way radios are a fun toy for expeditions such as camping and useful for groups roaming the mall. RadioShack has a low-maintenance, one-button product for $40.

Otherwise, expect to pay plenty for extra perks. Motorola's radios are packed with tech toys, including a digital compass, altimeter, and barometer. The cost: $130. It only transmits up to 5 miles, which probably is not an adequate distance for general parent-child communication.

Once equipped, children cannot expect carte blanche in the classroom. Some schools prohibit students from using cellphones and pagers altogether. Others insist that the devices be left in lockers.

Schools in Kentucky's Jefferson County, for example, lifted their ban on wireless devices last year to accommodate students' need to set up schedules after school. The change, according to spokesman Maurice Risner, went without a hitch. "There are a few incidents of students not turning them off during class, but those are the overwhelming exception," he says.

Still, parents' efforts to strengthen communication with their children through technology can backfire. Fifteen-year-old Amanda Hadad, a junior at the Commonwealth School in Boston, says her parents bought her a cellphone to stay in touch in case of an emergency. They call her to check up at night and on weekends, too. But she has proved to be elusive. "If I don't want them to track me, I just turn it off," says Amanda.

Instead, she uses the phone to stay in contact with her expanding circle of friends. "My parents don't want people calling the house late, so [the cellphone] is the only way to stay in touch with friends."

Besides simply broadening a child's social circles, cellphones can also give parents a false sense of connectedness, says Sherry Blake, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta.

"People need to realize that cellphones and pagers do not replace the one on one, the face to face," says Dr. Blake.

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