While most Americans past eighth grade seem to consider cell phones as vital as air, kids under 13 have remained largely unfettered. That may be changing. The Walt Disney Internet Group announced in early July that it is teaming up with Sprint to develop a line of mobile phones, due out next year, aimed squarely at preteen children. Meanwhile, the market is already filling up. In March, Firefly Mobile debuted a model designed for the lunch-box set. Later this summer, a company called Wherify will debut its Wherifone, and in September, Enfora will introduce its version, the TicTalk.
These kid-centric-phone makers insist their devices are not intended for tots who want to kick back in the sandbox, chatting with friends. Rather, they are designed to help children let their parents know about, say, school scheduling changes or to reassure parents that they can reach their kids at any time. Instead of the standard numbered keypads, the kid phones have a limited number of oversize keys and controls that prevent children from dialing or receiving calls from numbers that parents haven't programmed in. Wherifone comes equipped with a global-positioning system (GPS) so parents can find their kids via a website, on which a map showing their location appears. Enfora's TicTalk uses different technology that alerts parents by a text message sent to their cell phone if their child has wandered out of a prespecified area. (Unlike Disney, none of these companies have partnered with major phone carriers, so make sure they offer coverage in your area.)
Some critics say the phones are unnecessary because kids so young are rarely left unsupervised by responsible adults. Others complain that the marketing campaigns play on parents' fears and that the phones are an intrusion on childhoods already oversaturated with technology. Think of them, says Gary Ruskin, executive director of the consumer watchdog group Commercial Alert, as "entry points to parents' wallets." --With reporting by Deirdre van Dyk/ New York