Standing in the toy section of a store in the Hong Kong airport, I was fascinated by the wide array of faux laptops made for children. These machines were designed to look like laptops, but their functionality was extremely limited to a learning-based program with the graphical capability of a Tamagotchi. Faux electronics for children have been around for a while, especially in the world of mobile phones. Lately, though, technology has become cheaper and what was once faux is now real. While children’s laptops are still more hype than reality, phones for children are appearing all over the place. These “kiddie” phones are often smaller, simpler, and more brightly colored.
A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported on the tide of concern in Europe over the rise in kiddie phones. On one hand, there are questions about the long-term health effects of mobile phones. On the other, there is a parenting concern about whether young children should have phones at all. One of the experts quoted draws a parallel between the mobile phone and tobacco industries. In other words, are companies acting maliciously by addicting kids to mobile phones at a young age? Luckily, since it’s Europe, the furor is prompting a bunch of research.
In the States, kiddie phones have had a different tenor. Here, the safety concern revolves around access to porn and other “harmful” content as well as the potential for dangerous contact from strangers. (Research is not encouraged.) When kiddie phones are available, their uniqueness is less about look and feel than it is about parent-child specific features. For example, the branded kiddie cell phone service offered by Disney was a glorified parent tracking device for parents. Last fall, Disney cancelled the service, citing challenges breaking through the carrier stranglehold.
All of this makes me wonder… What is the appropriate age for children to first get phones? What should be the purpose of those phones? What regulation is necessary? What are the responsibilities of parents?