Dialed In: Cell Phones for Kids
By Grace Aquino, PC World
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
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.