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CELLPHONE MARKETING TO CHILDREN ATTACKED

Commercial Alert Wants Congress to Enact New Regulations

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Some 30 health, education and privacy advocates, led by the Ralph Nader group Commercial Alert, are demanding Congress regulate mobile phones marketed to children.
Commercial Alert is behind the call to regulate how cell phones are marketed to children.
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A letter to members of the Senate and House Commerce Committees said the telecommunications industry is targeting young children as its next growth market, a move called "one of the worst ideas to appear in the American economy in a long time."

Commercial Alert
The letter, written and organized by Commercial Alert, a consumer advocacy group that monitors advertising, cautioned federal lawmakers that once cell phones "are in classrooms, playrooms, and in children’s bedrooms, it will be too late." Even though cell phones for children are marketed as a tool for children to contact parents in an emergency, in reality the phones allow advertisers of all kinds to better market to children, the letter said.

"Despite the [wireless] industry’s rhetoric, [Walt] Disney and the telecommunications companies really want to use children as conduits to their parents’ wallets. And marketers want another way to bypass parents and speak directly to the nation’s children," the letter said.

How many young children actually have cell phones varies by research group. The NPD Group said 22% of 9 to 11 year olds have phones. NOP Worldwide Technology said that among 10 and 11 year olds, 14% have phones. The Yankee Group puts the number of youth 13 to 17 with phones at 55%. Overall, 80% of Americans aged 18 to 65 have a wireless phone.

Media-saturated lives
In addition, a study released in March by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the media habits of children found that although children live more media-saturated lives than ever before, spending 6.5 hours a day engaged with TV, the Internet, digital games, radio, MP3 players and other media, cell phones weren't one of the media studied, so their pervasiveness is not clear.

Commercial Alert wants Congress to draft legislation "to handle the privacy, education and health and safety implications" of cell phone use by children, said Gary Ruskin, Commercial Alert's executive director.

In addition to Mr. Ruskin, those signing the letter to Congress included doctors, academics and Nicholas Johnson, a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission.

Other concerns cited in the letter are classroom distractions caused by cell phones; the possibility sexual predators could reach children via cell phones just as they have over the Internet; and the danger of tumors and cancer to children from cell phone use.

Disney phone service
Earlier this month, the Walt Disney Co. confirmed long-rumored plans to launch a Disney-branded cell phone. Working with Sprint, Disney will become what is known as an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator. Like other MVNOs, such as Virgin Mobile, Disney will offer its own consumer phone service in competition with Verizon Wireless, Cingular Wireless and other major carriers, although Sprint will use its technology to carry the service.

A Disney spokeswoman said the phones won't be available until sometime next year and will be marketed to parents, not children. "It's a family service," she said, which will "help parents connect with their kids."

Mr. Ruskin said "Disney is the absolute master at the nag factor," meaning the company knows how to get children to pester their parents about the phone. "Why should Disney be able to disrupt every school and church in this country?" he said.

Other marketers
Other companies cited in the letter included Wherify, which sells a phone with a global positioning system, and Firefly Mobile, which is sold online and at Target Stores and is aimed at young children. The consumer groups also targeted toymakers Hasbro and its "Chat Now" phone device and Mattel with its Barbie-brand mobile phone.

A Mattel spokeswoman, Lisa Marie Bongiovanni, in an e-mail statement said Mattel's "My Scene Mobile" phone is "not only fashionable and functional," but will allow parents to monitor and regulate cell phone use because parents must pre-pay purchase minutes in advance, protecting against additional charges. The phone also includes access to a "Rewards Board" on myscene.com, where children performing extra chores or doing a good job with homework can get their parents to buy extra talk time.

Other marketers cited in the letter either did not return calls by deadline or were looking into the issues raised.

Parental responsibility
A spokesman for CITA: The Wireless Association, the country's largest wireless industry trade organization, said it is up to parents to monitor children's cell phone use. "There is no question that ultimately parents have control over how and when and where their children use these devices," he said. He noted that a number of devices have software to control the ability to make and receive calls, including the time of day the phone service is active.

Julie Ask, a research director and senior analyst at Jupiter Networks, agreed with Commercial Alert's assertion that carriers wanting to grow their subscription base will need to look to the youth market. "If carriers want to grow their base, ultimately, it will come from kids and teens," she said. At the same time, she expects schools will ban cell phone use in classrooms and collect the devices during tests.

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