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Dialing in to the younger generation

Laura Petrecca USA Today

Forget the Barbie Dream House. Today’s 9-year-old wants her own cell phone — and Mattel will be happy to provide one.

The toymaker is one of many companies vying to connect with the preteen and younger market through mobile phones, services and accessories. The goal is not just to tap new revenue - it’s also to establish brand loyalty early.

Some parents welcome the appearance of kid-friendly cell phones, while some critics worry that easy-to-influence preteens will be exposed to a barrage of marketing messages.

About 16 million teens and younger kids have cell phones, with the bulk of them older teens, according to the researcher GfK’s NOP World Technology. But as the teen market gets saturated, cell providers and other companies are eyeing the younger set.

In February 2002, 13 percent of 12-to-14-year-olds had cell phones. That number jumped to 40 percent in December 2004, according to NOP. Some 14 percent of 10-to-11-year-olds now own cell phones. While NOP doesn’t have comparison data for that group yet, Vice President Ben Rogers says its ownership is rising.

Even kids under 10 are using personal cells to call for rides home. “We’re seeing cell phone growth from ages 8 and 9 on,” says technology analyst Rob Enderle.

Mattel licensed its “My Scene” brand name, which focuses on preteens, to Single Touch Interactive. This month, they’ll sell a full-service $79.99 cell phone with prepaid minutes priced at 25 cents each. Next year, Walt Disney launches Disney Mobile service through Sprint. It is designed for families with kids as young as 10.

Some companies are aiming even younger.

Just in time for the new school year, educational tech company LeapFrog and wireless firm Enfora are launching the $99.99 TicTalk phone for children ages 6 and older.

Firefly Mobile has a simple $99.99 phone with five “speed-dial” buttons for “mobile kids.”

Many parents are buying in.

Gaithersburg, Md., mom Phyllis Corrao just got her 10-year-old son, Daniel Mangle, a full-service phone so she can stay in touch when he’s at school.

Eric Webber of Austin says he’s about to cave in and buy one for his 11-year-old son, Jake. “I have the cell phone debate every day,” says Webber, adding that his son has worn him down.

When parents put phones in kids’ hands, they’re likely creating a lifelong cell phone customer, say experts. That gives both the service providers - such as Sprint or Verizon — as well as brands with names on the handsets — such as Mattel’s “My Scene” — access to new customers and sets the stage for future sales.

“Once you give it to them, you can’t take it away,” Rogers says. He adds that as kids get older and are exposed to more advanced phones, “Parents are going to experience a lot of pressure to upgrade.”

He says the simpler phones, such as the Firefly, are seeding the way for future growth. “There is a role for those limited phones to get people in young and then drive intake of fully functional phones at a younger age,” Rogers says.

That vast marketing potential has some children’s advocates worried about exploitation.

“It’s open season on kids,” says Gary Ruskin, executive director of advocacy group Commercial Alert. Ruskin rattles off a range of concerns, from children being exposed to marketing messages on the phone itself (such as Mattel’s “My Scene” design) to the potential for kids to be pressured to buy ring tones and accessories.

Ruskin says some companies will harness the nag factor — when a kid harasses a parent for so long, the parent gives in — to sell their goods.

Marketers defend their phone products. Mattel says: “We believe it is ultimately the choice of the parent to decide when his or her child is ready for a cell phone.”

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