Every cell-phone owner can recall a time when a mobile in hand was more than welcome-not for chatting, but for summoning the highway patrol or letting the boss know you were stuck in traffic. In some cases, the phone was literally a life-saver. By now, about 80 percent of adults are more-or-less-satisfied users. And there's the rub: The adult market is maxed out, and teenagers are not far behind. That leaves children. Mothers, wouldn't you like to watch your fourth-grader leave for school with her own My Scene Barbie Phone tucked away in her backpack, knowing that in an emergency, you're only one button away?
The fastest-growing group of new users: 6 million customers between 10 and 14 years old. Their little brothers and sisters are dialing up, too: an estimated 500,000 5- to 9-year-olds. Firefly Mobile specializes in models for the preteen set, offering kid-friendly services like one-button dialing, prepaid minutes, and animated screens. They may be a little pricey, but worth it: "It gives kids a higher level of confidence," claims Robin Abrams, chief executive at Firefly.
But not so fast. Kids who are perpetually attached to their parents may be missing opportunities to develop confidence on their own. Real confidence-the kind that builds slowly over time, made up of hundreds of small goals met and short-range plans carried through. College students who can't wait to leave home find themselves still tied by satellite apron strings, calling their parents whenever their debit card is refused or the milk goes sour. Communication goes both ways: It's not uncommon for young women to hear from their mothers several times a day.
Bernardo Carlucci, professor of psychology at the University of Indiana Southeast, suspects that habitual cell-phone use may keep young adults from developing abilities that once were taken for granted. "The first thing students do when they walk out the door of my classroom is flip open the cell phone. Ninety-five percent of the conversations go like this: 'I just got out of class; I'll see you in the library in five minutes.'" They're failing to exercise the prefrontal cortex, the executive branch of the brain, where plans are made. With the mobile always near, why plan?
Cell-phone usage is still too new to predict all unintended consequences. Until then, it might be wise to hold off buying one for your 5-year-old.