The Kids Are Alright: They Have Cell Phones

It's the end of the elementary school day. Both dismissal bells and cell phones ring and buzz as kids call and text. Twenty percent of kids ages 6-11 now have their own cell phone, according to MRI's American Kids Study.

Moreover, cell adoption among children is fast-paced; ownership has grown 68% in the past five years, and more than 12% of parents say they intend to buy a cell phone for their child within the next 12 months. Most kids surveyed cite communication -- calling their parents and friends, emergency purposes and text messaging -- as their top-ranking reasons for cell use.

The 2009 American Kids Study surveys approximately 5,000 children from households included in MRI's Survey of the American Consumer. MRI also asks primary caregivers to fill out a separate questionnaire detailing the child's purchasing influence and activities.

Kids Cell Phone Activity chart

As with all things related to technology, cell phones for youngsters have come a long way in a short period of time. The first major cell phone for children is generally agreed to have been Cingular's Firefly, which debuted around 2005. It had two programmable buttons on the front for making calls and lacked a keyboard, so there was no need for parents to worry about their offspring making unwanted outgoing calls beyond calling home or work. Needless to say, the Firefly didn't take pictures or play music.

Of course, along the way, the phones themselves have gotten much more feature-rich and sophisticated. After all, why call home to say you'll be at a friend's house after school when you can't photograph that BFF with your phone when you get there? And why have one ringtone when you can have 50?

With GPS capabilities, some phones even let parents track their young ones' locations. In short, today's phones, particularly those aimed at the upper end of the 6-11 bracket and at the higher edge of the price range, can do just about everything that adult phones do.

Marketing kid-friendly cell phones to parents still largely rests on a simple emotional premise: guaranteed communication when needed. This correlates with the finding of the Marketing to Moms Coalition, which reported last summer that mobile devices accounted for the top two ways mothers communicate with their children under 18.

The respondents reported talking to their kids on mobile phones an average of 5.1 times per week and texting their children 3.3 times weekly. In a world in which public pay phones are as hard to find as a needle in a haystack, the guarantee of being able to connect with the kids whenever and wherever will resonate for a long time to come.

The past three years have seen a surge -- nearly 50% -- in cell phone ownership among boys. The number of girls who own cells has also increased, although not as dramatically, during that time. Our study shows that girls and boys use their phones for different purposes. Girls are more apt to make calls and text message, while preliminary data suggest that boys are more likely to instant message, access the Internet, download games/music/video, and watch streaming video.

Cell phone-wielding children are 15% more likely than the average child to use the Internet, and they use it for different activities. For example, they are 36% more likely than other children to "do stuff for school/homework." They also are much more likely (84%) to say that their parents let them go anywhere they want online.

While any parent will tell you that today's kids excel at doing multiple tasks simultaneously, kids who have their own cell phone appear to be better at it. For example, while watching TV, cell kids are more likely than the average child to text, talk, listen and read. What do kids ages 6-11 do the least with their cell phones? Download ringtones, picture message and listen to music.

It's reasonable to expect more music listening as these devices get more sophisticated at the bottom end of the price range.

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