- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Eight-year-old Emily Chappell doesn’t have a problem keeping in touch with her friends.

When she’s not at school or on the soccer field, the Burke third-grader stays plugged in with her cell phone.

“Me and my friends talk every few days,” she explained. “We go to each other’s houses a lot, but sometimes, we call if we just want to talk or plan a play date.”

Emily’s phone — sheathed in pink with a cherry motif — is a hand-me-down from her 13-year-old sister, Merrie, who requested a newer model for her birthday in April.

“Going to somebody else’s house, traveling around our neighborhood — it’s nice she has that available,” said Kathy Chappell, Emily’s mother.

Mrs. Chappell is not alone in wanting her daughters to have cell phones for safety and convenience, according to a recent survey of 1,000 parents of children ages 12 to 17.

Among those surveyed, 84 percent of parents opposed school cell-phone bans and 95 percent said they would rather oversee their child’s cell-phone use. Seventy-eight percent said they think it’s reasonable to give a child a cell phone at age 14 or younger.

“This is a very controversial subject,” said George Jimenez, chief executive officer of AceComm, the Gaithersburg company that commissioned the study. “Both on the side of the parents, on the side of the schools and with some degree, with respect to the children.”

Although the vast majority of parents surveyed want their children to have access to cell phones in case of an emergency or a change in schedule, 66 percent are worried about children using them too often — and talking instead of studying.

AceComm said the survey — conducted by Canadian market research firm Itracks — helps make the case for Parent Patrol, technology the Maryland company developed that allows parents to limit and track their child’s cell-phone usage from a personal computer. The restrictions can be customized for different children and altered via a password-protected Web page.

Parents can restrict the numbers that children can call, the amount of minutes they can use and the services they can access. For example, parents can block calls from unwanted callers or prohibit text messaging during school hours. Calls to emergency services are always permitted, however.

“You think about shootings in schools now, fires in schools and parents not being able to contact their kids — you wouldn’t be able to call into school because the phones would be saturated,” Mr. Jimenez said. “The more and more you hear of that kind of stuff, I think it’s going to be a concern. It’s a sign of our times.”

The company is marketing Parent Patrol to mobile-service providers to offer customers as part of a family plan. So far, AceComm has licensed Parent Patrol to a North American carrier that is expected to make the product available by the end of the year. Mr. Jimenez said he could not identify the company.

“A carrier is probably looking at about hundreds of millions of dollars [in revenues] if they roll out this service,” he said, noting that there are 27 million children between the ages of 6 and 12 in the U.S. “That’s a largely untapped market.”

There are 5.3 million U.S. wireless subscribers ages 8 to 12, accounting for 2.6 percent of the country’s cell phone customers, according to data released in January by the Yankee Group, a market research firm in Boston.

Andrea Savoca, a Fairfax resident and mother of four who has had disciplinary issues with her children and cell phones, said she would rather her children learn to regulate themselves than use a service like Parent Patrol.

“I really want them to make these mistakes while they’re still living with me,” said Mrs. Savoca, whose 16-year-old son Matt racked up $85 in text-message overage charges last month. “That service would be something I would threaten my kids with. If you can’t self-monitor, I’ll take care of it for you — and you won’t like it.”

Depending on the mobile carrier and the type of plan, Mr. Jimenez estimated that Parent Patrol might cost customers between $1 and $4 per month.

Other wireless providers — including Disney Mobile, Firefly Mobile and TicTalk — market cell phones with parental controls directly to children, but unlike competing services, Parent Patrol can be used with any cell phone.

In the suburban Washington area, most public-school districts have updated their policies to allow cell phones as long as they are tucked away and turned off during school hours. One major exception is D.C. Public Schools, which does not allow cell phones on school premises unless a student has an emergency such as a sick family member, a spokesman said.

Mrs. Chappell said her daughters don’t abuse their cell-phone privileges very often.

“It’s more of a novelty than anything else,” she said.

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