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Cell phones and kids: Do they mix?

A new generation of cell phones means teens can do a lot more than talk with their handsets. And that has some experts worried.

It wasn't so long ago that parents asked their teenagers to double-check that they had a quarter so they could call home, if need be. Then came cell phones.

In 2000, just 5 percent of 13- to 17-year olds had cell phones. Today, 56 percent do, according to Linda Barrabee, wireless market analyst for The Yankee Group.

Teens aren't just using their phones to talk. From rapid-fire "texting" to full-fledged Web browsing to videos and video games, cell phones have become portable computers. And that's opened up a whole new set of concerns.

"Parents are totally clueless about what kids are doing on cell phones.  They are taking pictures, surfing the Web, playing games and MP3s. They are harassing each other, cyberbullying," says child safety advocate Parry Aftab.

Even responsible parents who follow the time-tested advice of keeping the computer out of the child's bedroom and in a family room, where usage can be casually monitored, may not have control over what their kids are doing with cell phones, she said.

"The same parents who tell me the computer is in a central location are clueless that they're kids are chatting with anyone they want on their cell phones."

No ratings system
The growth in teens with mobiles isn't accidental. Kids represent one of the few growth areas in an industry where competition is fierce and opportunities are shrinking, said Barrabee.

Cell phone makers have taken aim at the segment, which is constantly being refreshed by kids coming of cell phone age. About half of the children with phones are signed up with increasingly popular family plans, designed to outfit entire households with phones -- and designed by industry to hook loyal users.

Teens have also been targeted by a recent aggressive move to push video games onto cell phones. When the games were simple, such as the knockoffs of the Atari-era "breakout," there wasn't much to worry about.  But newer phones with color displays and higher processing power create a landscape that might make some parents worried about what their kids are playing on the bus home from school. 

Games and videos with sex and violence are now a technological possibility -- even if the screens are still small, and the characters pixilated. And then there's the more subtle messages sent by some games:

"Prince of Persia," by Gameloft, urges players to rescue a kidnapped harem of women.  "The Sultan’s wives have been kidnapped by the Vizier in order to carry out experiments on abstinence. The Sultan’s real mad! He no longer knows how to express his desires. Seven female prisoners – and only you can set them free and bring them back to life!" the game's description reads.

Complicating matters further, said Patricia Vance of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, is the fact that game ratings can't be used on cell phones -- the technology doesn't allow it.

Console and PC games have ratings on the outside of the package, so parents at least know what they are getting into when they make a purchase. Since cell phone downloads offer no method for displaying ratings before purchase, "there's no way to enforce a rating system," Vance said.

With more video game makers porting their console games onto the tiny screen, that could lead to a sticky situation.  "There could be parents who decide they don't want their kids playing a game at home, but it ends up on their cell phone," Vance said. 

Industry praised as self-policing
On the other hand, Vance said, she's had regular conversations with the cell phone industry, which tends to be conservative with its game offerings. And with game functions limited by the tiny screens cell phones have, there isn't a lot of concern about cell phone games today,. she said. By the time they make it to the tiny screen, most games would be rated "E" for everyone if they were rated.

"The carriers are doing a good job of self-policing," she said. "Right now I don't think it's much of a problem."

Executives at Sorrent Inc., one of a group of new companies that's writing cell phone games, say it's really premature to worry about cell phone game violence.

"In the U.S. it’s hard to get violent games on a cell phone," said CEO Greg Ballard. "We don’t have any issues facing the video game business, and that’s a good thing because we are still a maturing industry and we don’t need the extra issue right now. We can’t get any more violent than a boxing game."  One game on Sorrent's site right now allows player to take part in a mano-y-mano between George Bush and John Kerry.

Sprint's Jason Ford, who runs the games and entertainment group, said his company has towed a strict line with its game offerings so far.

"We are a conservative company," he said.  "If a game is questionable, that's not what we want to be associated with. We would would never sell the stuff. ..the things we present are incredibly wholesome, not even get close to the line."

But Sprint can't control games other companies make, or the Web sites kids may visit. Ford agreed that parents need to make an effort to remain well-versed in what their kids are doing with their phones. Web-enabled phones can go to all the unsavory places a Web-enabled computer can, so parents need to keep a watchful eye.

"If child has these (capabilities), parents need to be educated," he said.

Purse-string control
Erin McGee, manager of Public Affairs for the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, said the best way to enforce strict limits is to keep hold of the mobile purse strings.

Since consumers must be 18 in order to purchase a cell phone contract in the United States, most parents are buying the phones their children carry in the first place. Don't let that be the end of it, McGee said.

"When a parent pays a child's bill, they can look at that bill, and see where and how are they are spending their minutes," she said.

But purse-string control is a getting little more complicated now, Barrabee said, because features like text messaging and Web browsing are increasingly included in bundles with extra weekend and night minutes. Fewer phones come with simple telephone capabilities, she said.

"Children are early adopters. Cell phones take it to another level of not being around your kids, and not knowing what kind of media they are being exposed to," said Patty Miller, another child safety advocate with Children Now.

"You have to really know your child. Different kids handle things differently.  If your kid has a cell phone, it's really important for parents to talk with kids about what they are doing."