Somewhere in the middle of fifth grade, Shaurya Bandyopadhyay began nagging his parents for a cellphone.
Why not? His friends already had them. Besides, it would be easier to stay in touch with Mommy.
It took a year, but the 11-year-old Tampa boy got his toy: a popular Razr brand cellphone, which allows him to listen to Linkin Park, download wallpapers and change ringtones.
Children as young as five carry cellphones now
The sixth-grader now joins a burgeoning tween population with mobile phones. They are tech savvy, know what they want and are fast becoming the darlings of the wireless industry.
In 2006, 19 million wireless subscribers were added to a tally of 226 million, according to Jupiter Research. That’s fewer than the 25 million amassed the previous year. With the adult and teen population nearing market saturation, cellphone companies are fast dropping the age bar in pursuit of new customers.
“We do see youth customers are a great market to go after,” said Mimi Chan, director of youth marketing for AT&T Wireless.
The market penetration among 9- to 11-year-olds is 46%, according to a study by KidzEyes, the youth division of C&R Research. The same study shows that the number of kids from 6 to 8 years of age with cellphones has more than tripled since 2005 and now stands at 20%.
Even some 5-year-olds now carry cellphones.
Courting of children by cell manufacturers isn’t necessarily bad, said Doug Fodeman, co-owner of childrenonline.org, a website devoted to issues surrounding children’s Internet use.
The shift towards younger children began around 2004, said Neil Strother, wireless analyst at Jupiter Research. It sprang as a natural transition from the numerous family plans, which boasted free talk time with friends and family.
“Various market carriers said we got a lot of adults, (so) what’s left?” he said.
After teens got pulled into the parents’ plans, younger kids and siblings soon followed. To lure them, companies began unleashing new products.
Verizon began selling the LG Migo, a phone with an emergency key and four speed-dial keys, vibrate mode and polyphonic ringtones. Cingular, which is now AT&T, countered with the Firefly, a five-key phone with lights, sounds, colours and animation. The prepaid players such as Virgin Mobile, Boost, Amp’d and Kajeet also staked a claim.
The strategy was to impress the parents more than the kids. But cellphones are no longer just a communication device, they’re also a status symbol, the C&R report said. Young users are becoming picky and rejecting what they call the kiddie phones.
Parents arm their kids with phones because they serve as a wireless leash, experts say. Parents can track kids’ movements thanks to GPS capabilities on some phones, monitor their friends and connect with them any time.
Shaun Vaka of Tampa said she and her husband decided to buy their oldest daughter, Abigail, her first cellphone right after the 11 September attacks in 2001.
Abigail was 9.
“At that point, it became a safety issue,” Vaka said. “She was walking home from school and my husband and I were both working.”
Even after Vaka began working from home, Abigail’s five siblings got their own phones.
Strother of Jupiter Research says companies have yet to figure out the magic mantra to deal with the demands of the emerging tween segment.
“My take is kids are smarter, and some of these (kiddie-styled) phones are only great for mommies,” Strother said.
Other cellphone companies are now taking note.
“What we are seeing is there’s no desire for SpongeBob square phones,” said Chuck Hamby, spokesman for Verizon Wireless. “Preteens are the influencers and tech experts in the family.”
Verizon has discontinued the Migo, and AT&T bade goodbye to the Firefly at retail locations. Instead, they are now promoting adult phones such as the Razr.
The grown-up phones worry activists such as Fodeman.
“There are scammers and marketers targeting the kids because they know they are gullible and naive and have a powerful device in their hands,” Fodeman warns.
He learned the hard way. Last year, he bought a cell for daughter Lauren, 13. They were still at the mall when her cell rang and a text message with a dumb blond joke lit up. Fodeman had never subscribed to or solicited the service, but it took three months to get the charge off the bill.
But customers such as Shaurya Bandyopadhyay don’t want to be seen with phones meant for little people.
“It’s for kids in third grade,” he said. “By the end of fifth grade, you should get a real phone.”
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