- The Washington Times - Friday, February 7, 2003

They have faceplates that light up and cool games to play. They hang on belts and purses and come in cotton-candy pink or with alien holograms. Cell phones are poised to join Playstations, Game Boys, XBoxes and instant messaging as rites of teen passage in America.
Teens, especially those old enough to drive, are gaining their own phones at a speedy rate, thanks to family-friendly calling plans that allow parents to add several more phones to their plans. Soon, the younger set of American middle-schoolers is likely to have phones of their own, too.
Cell phones are becoming "a way of life," says Jason Meyers, editorial director of Telephony, a trade magazine for telecommunication service providers. Restrictions can be set for young cell-phone users, he says, "but I think it's kind of futile to try to stem the tide when [cell phones] are becoming more and more the primary way of communication for people."
Why is a teen cell-phone tsunami on the way? Analysts say it's because parents want them, children want them and industry wants the children to have them.
Throw in access to B2K's hit "Uh Huh" or a daily "deep thought" from the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants and it's a no-lose proposition.
Even people who usually don't want children to have cellular connections, like school officials, are rethinking their mobile-phone philosophy. Many middle schools and high schools, instead of forbidding cell phones, now insist students keep their phones turned off and in their lockers.
The likely outcome of all this will be America's first "mobile" generation: millions of youths trained at an early age to use cell phones to connect with family, friends and the latest gadgetry.
Cell phones allow a "convergence of different devices" cameras, video games, music players, Internet access which "just makes them more appealing to a young person," says Dan Drath of Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU), a research firm in Northbrook, Ill.
Already, 31 percent of Americans ages 12 to 15 have cell phones, TRU data finds. Forty-seven percent of teens ages 14 to 17 and 57 percent of those ages 18 and 19 also have phones.
Teen usage is projected to grow and perhaps reach 75 percent of the population by 2006, said the Yankee Group, a Boston consulting firm. Around 60 percent of U.S. households now have a cell phone.
Parents are a big reason why teens are getting wired, say analysts.
It's a good way for a parent to stay in contact with a child, plus there's all the safety aspects, says David Chamberlain, research director for wireless and Internet services at Probe Research in Cedar Knolls, N.J. "At some point, the question really becomes, 'Why not have a cell phone?'" he says.
Other analysts point to the 1990s school shootings and September 11 terror attacks as catalysts for getting phones. Add to that a fear of child abductions or medical emergencies, and that's why a few parents are going beyond cell phones to having microchips implanted in their children's arms to track their whereabouts.
Cell-phone costs also have dropped.
When cell phones were introduced in the 1980s, they were large, expensive and geared to busy executives.
Many families eventually got one cell phone, but they used it carefully, "watching the minutes," says AT&T; Wireless spokeswoman Alexa Kaufman.
Cell-phone companies in the mid-1990s, led by AT&T; Wireless, hit upon the idea of allowing multiple phone users to draw from the same "big bucket of minutes," Miss Kaufman says. This led to many households getting second phones, usually for a spouse, and now a third, fourth or fifth phone for the children.
For families and teens who don't want telephone contracts, companies like Virgin Mobile have a phone for them.
For $59, anyone can walk into a Best Buy and pick up a cell phone with plenty of prepaid minutes and lots of cool activities musical ring tones, a button to push for MTV polls, and the popular SpongeBob's "Deep Sea Thought of the Day," available for a dime a call.
Virgin Mobile users which include "a lot of teens," said a saleswoman at a Best Buy in Bowie replenish their prepaid minutes by buying "top-off" cards.
Teens respond eagerly to cell phones, researchers say. Phone trimmings like see-through holograms, glow-in-the-dark faceplates and antennas and buttons that light up with each ring are a whole new category of fashion accessories.
A Seattle-area company called Wildseed Ltd. is developing state-of-the-art "Smart Skins" for "young and fun" cell-phone users. These faceplates will allow users to link to music and videos, take pictures, play games and even "signal friends" by waving red lights at the top of the phone at each other, says Wildseed executive Cindy Smith.
But these zippy, noisy gadgets have more than a distraction factor. They sometimes have a bad reputation. That's where school officials step in.
During the 1980s, most schools outlawed "electronic devices" to eliminate beepers, which were associated with drug dealing and gang activities. Cell phones were included in those bans.
Under pressure from parents and students (especially those who drive), many high school districts now allow cell phones on campus.
Some middle schools are following suit, and many administrators are practical-minded about the issue.
"We see many more kids with phones now," says Patti Kinney, the award-winning principal of Talent Middle School in Talent, Ore. She says students have to leave them in lockers during the day, "but after school, I see lots of kids out front, checking in and calling home."
William Thomas Middle School in American Falls, Idaho, has a similar policy, says Principal Randy Jensen. "It's just an everyday convenience and one we've learned to live with," he said.
"After 9/11, we stopped fussing about them," says Linda Robinson, principal of Alvin Junior High School in Alvin, Texas, and president of the National Middle School Association. Before then, "the principals were all saying we need to make [cell phone] policies. But after 9/11, it was hands off."
Other schools are retaining their cell-phone bans, a position supported by Ken Trump of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.
Mobile phones, he says, could even be a hindrance to safety officers. "Hundreds, if not thousands, of students rushing to use their cell phones in a crisis would overload the cell-phone system and render it useless."
Elementary schools, which have resisted onslaughts of laser pens, Giga pets and Game Boys, likely will not be surrendering to cell phones anytime soon.
The National Association of Elementary School Principals recently asked its members about cell-phone usage for The Washington Times. Of 31 respondents, 25 said they didn't allow cell phones.
"And if challenged," declared one West Coast elementary school principal, "I would let parents know it's disruptive to the learning environment."

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