"It's small, and shaped to fit a kid's hand" - runs an advertisement for Firefly - a mobile phone launched by communications giant Rogers, the first Canadian company to introduce a cellphone for eight-year olds. The three-inch long phone has two special keys - mom and dad - as speed dials. Firefly's address book can store 20 numbers and it has multiple ring tones, animations and flashing lights. "Every Firefly phone can be as unique as the kid who uses it," promises the advertisement. At $150 (US$1=1.2 Canadian Dollars), it is being sold as a tool for parents to keep in touch with "the people who matter most".
Young children and pre-teens are now being targeted by wireless companies and mobile phone manufacturers as an untapped market for the sale of mobile phones. Tweens (8-12 years) hold a rather privileged position in North American families. As recipients of, often expensive, gifts from both parents and grandparents, they are a readymade market for expensive cellphones.
These marketing strategies and the rising sales figures have caused concern, given the fact that there are preliminary studies pointing to the adverse impact that cellphones might have on health. There are worries that the electromagnetic radiation emitted from mobile phone handsets may harm health. In particular, there have been assertions that it could affect the cell function, brain or immune system and increase the risk of developing a range of diseases from cancer to Alzheimer's. If this is the case, children are a high-risk category. Their skulls are thinner and their brains are still developing - thus increasing their vulnerability.
Solutions Research Group, a Canadian market research company, has these forecasts: 40 per cent of 8-11 year olds; 60 per cent of 12-14 year olds; and 80 per cent of 15-29 year olds will have cellphones by 2008. Thrilled by such forecasts, phone companies - catering to an increasingly saturated adult market - are unveiling plans for 'kiddie' phones. By next year, popular children's characters - including Barbie, Elmo, Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny - will be marketing brands for mobile phones in North America.
Toy giant Mattel Inc. has already announced its plans to start marketing its 'My Scene' Barbie phone in the market for girls younger than 12 years. 'My Scene' dolls have a huge market in North America among tween girls interested in fashion. The phone is designed keeping the target users in mind. The revived Nokia phone model will come with three interchangeable faceplates and nine themed wallpapers and three ringtones. Earlier this year, in the US, Nokia and wireless operator Cingular introduced a pink Hello Kitty pre-paid cellphone, which has voicemail, caller ID, wireless email and text messaging facilities. The introduction of these phones in market has led some to ask why young children need a cell phone.
Brad Moore, 14, has had a cellphone for a year now. His parents purchased it out of concern for his safety. They see it as a way of keeping in touch with him all the time. Brad Moore says: "I like carrying it because it is cool." He agrees that the phone is his most cherished possession. "I use it to keep in touch with everyone. Who doesn't have a mobile phone in this day and age?" Mobile phone companies provide family package plans in the market with provisions of free talk time for the entire family, including kids. This makes the phones affordable for parents and gives kids access to longer duration phone calls minus the hefty bills.
While phone companies are now targeting a younger age group, some parents feel uncomfortable about studies that hint at the possibility of risks joined with use of mobile phones. Health Canada, the government health ministry, maintains that there has been no conclusive study on radio frequency energy from cellphones affecting the human body's genetic material. As a result, it has steered clear of issuing any public warnings against the use of cellphones.
Researchers, working mostly in Europe, are still trying to find the effect of mobile phones on humans. The UK government and the country's private sector have been proactive in limiting the use of mobile phones. In January 2005, after five years of first warnings against use of mobile phones by children, National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) - the UK statutory body providing research and advice on protecting people from radiation hazards - reiterated that children should not use mobile phones.
In its January 2005 report, 'Mobile Phones and Health', the NRPB said that there is still no conclusive proof that mobile phones are unsafe, but "we recommend that the mobile phone industry should refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by children." Following this report, wireless company Communic8, which had introduced MyMo phones in Britain for four to eight year olds withdrew them from the market.
Doubts about the use of mobile phones are not new in the scientific community. In 2004, a 750-people study by Sweden's Karolinska Institute suggested using a mobile phone for 10 years or more increases four-fold the risk of Acoustic Neuroma (ear tumors). This study - the first to give a major warning on the impact that using mobile phones has on health - is now increasingly cited by those who oppose the use of mobile phones by children.
In the US, consumer advocacy group Commercial Alert, co-funded by activist attorney Ralph Nader, has petitioned US Congress to investigate the marketing and sale of cellphones to kids. "There is preliminary evidence suggesting that mobile phones may cause benign tumors of the ear and brain. How will mobile phones affect children's health?" asks a letter from Commercial Alert written to gather public support on the issue.
Besides health risks, questions have also been raised on the other risks to children from cellphones, including interruptions in their learning. "Will the ringing of kids' mobile phones disrupt classrooms across the country?" asks Commercial Alert. Also, how will mobile phones affect children's privacy? Will child predators use them as a new way to gain access to their victims?
Clearly questions like these will not be answered by phone companies. Parents must find the answers themselves. Father of two pre-teen daughters John Giardino says: "For me, mobile phones for kids are a definite no-no. As it is, it is difficult to monitor their Internet chats. I don't want the additional problem of mobile phone use on my hands. I would also be very concerned about who could call them and harass them on their cellphones."
As the number of kiddie mobile phones in Canada increases, more parents will have to make the difficult decision of whether or not to get a cellphone for their child. For now, the $120 billion North American mobile phone industry is quick to dismiss ill-effects of using cellphones.