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Cellular status symbols
there were two things 11-year-old Patty Wiegner really, really, really wanted for Christmas. One was a furry, playful dog that's now filling her parents' home with the sound of barking. The other gift makes a different kind of noise -- it has a ring tone that mimics rapper 50 Cent's hit song "Candy Shop."
While some might question why someone so young might need one, and some scientists have expressed health concerns, Patty is one of many children her age who are asking their parents for cell phones. And increasingly, they're getting them.
"It's cool and popular," Patty, a sixth-grader in Valrico, Fla., says of her reason for wanting the mobile phone. "And I can talk to my friends and talk to my dad and mom."
Her mom, Lisa Wiegner, wasn't entirely thrilled with the idea but gave in because she likes knowing her daughter can contact her if she needs to. "And," mom says, "I wanted to be able to be in touch with her in an emergency."
Some parents have been prompted to add their children because their wireless companies offer "family plans," giving them a specified number of minutes to chat with one another each month.
Now, a few other companies are pushing the trend further by creating specific products for "tweens," a population of preteens as young as age 8 that some consider the next big, untapped market of cell phone users.
Firefly Mobile, one company that's developed a cell phone product for younger users, found that about 10 percent of tweens in its focus groups had phones, but that many more wanted them. The company also identified parent interest in a product that would allow them to keep tabs on their children.
"What the market was telling us is that there's a need for kids to stay in touch with the people who are important to them," says Robin Abrams, Firefly Mobile's CEO.
The Firefly phone, created by a father in Illinois and being launched nationwide in months to come, is smaller than other cell phones, allowing it to fit more easily in a child's hand. It has simpler buttons, including ones that speed dial "Mom" or "Dad" -- and gives parents more control by giving them password-protected access for programming the numbers the phone can dial and calls it can receive. The Firefly phone also has no games or capabilities for text messaging, a popular function with teens that some parents dislike because it can get expensive -- and distracting.
Meanwhile, Tiger Electronics, a subsidiary of Hasbro Inc., is taking another tack with its CHATNOW two-way radios, which allow communication -- including sending text messages and photos -- within a two-mile range. And toymaker Mattel is coming out with its own Barbie-themed prepaid cell phone.
It remains to be seen whether options like these will be a hit with their target age group.
Some kids say any phone is better than no phone. But others say they think they're old enough to handle a standard cell phone -- and abide by the limits their parents place on calling during expensive weekday hours.
"It shows if you're mature; it's a privilege to get a phone," says Stephanie Beaird, a 12-year-old in Northridge, Calif., who recently got a cell phone after begging her parents for more than a year.
Getting a phone was partly a reward for a very good report card -- but also a matter of convenience for Stephanie's parents, who've used it to find her when picking her up from school and after sporting events.
Seventh-grader Alex Chmielewski's parents have even called his phone to track him down while shopping in the same store. The 13-year-old from Irvine, Calif., got his phone when he was 12, and also carries it with him when he rides his bike to school, something he does often because there is no bus service.
If you have a phone, "some people view it as you're lucky," Alex says. "But I don't just use it for calling friends and stuff like that," he adds. "It gives me a sense of security or safety."
It's already common for kids in parts of Europe and Asia to have cell phones, though British officials have been more cautious, recommending against giving them to children until more research can be done on potential health risks to growing young bodies from the electromagnetic radiation that phones emit.
In this country, Rosemarie Young, president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, says cell phones are more often an issue in schools in higher-income neighborhoods where students and their parents can afford them.
But increasingly, she says, schools that once had all-out bans on cell phones are allowing them, as long as students keep them turned off during class.
"I don't have a problem with it if parents are clear about the use of it," says Young, who's also an elementary school principal in Louisville, Ky., and has had teachers who've had to confiscate the occasional cell phone from kids who don't follow the rules.
Jennifer Hartstein, a child and adolescent psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y., agrees that parents need to stick with limits they place on using the phones.
"The problem is, I'm not sure parents are doing that," says Hartstein, who has a few younger clients with cell phones.
She still thinks cell phones can be a good idea, depending on the kid. "But I also kind of laugh that my parents knew where I was when I didn't have a cell phone," says Hartstein, who's in her 30s. "When I was 8 or 9, we barely had answering machines."
That thought is not lost on Lisa Wiegner, the mother in Florida whose daughter got the dog and cell phone last Christmas. But she says that, so far, Patty has handled having a phone very well.
Her daughter thinks so, too: "I, as a person," Patty says in a grown-up tone, "am very resourceful with my minutes."
ON THE NET
National Association of Elementary School Principals: www.naesp.org/