Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Mobile Phones for Kids...Continued

Now that comps are done, I have time to return to my research, including an ongoing project/article I've been working on since last year, examining cell phones for kids. There's been quite a bit of news on the children's mobile culture front, including a recent article by Marian Scott that appeared in the Montreal Gazette last week on the increasing number of kids with cell phones. The article cites Jacqueline Lane, director of teen research at C&R Research Services in Chicago, who describes:
Nearly half of American children 9 to 11 years old now have wireless phones, compared with just 16 per cent two years ago. One in five 6- to 8-year-olds have their own phone, up from six per cent. "There's been a huge jump among that younger market," said Lane, crediting family plans, introduced in the past three years, for fueling sales of cellphones for kids.

Despite the number of kiddie-tech cell phones, the growing amount of ads for mobile phones and features being targeted at ever-younger children, as well as the numerous mobile features/add-ons now featured on kids' sites and throughout kids' media, the article maintains that it's not the kids themselves that are driving the market surge. According to them, and according to Lane, it's not the kids who want their own cell phones, it's the parents.
"The most important thing for parents is cost control," said David Neale, senior vice-president of consumer products and services at Telus. "Primarily it's to be able to reach the child or for the child to reach the parent."

But that changes when girls reach 11 or 12 and begin to view a cellphone as a must-have accessory, Lane said. "That nag factor becomes hugely prevalent at age 12. It comes down to the chatty nature of being an 11-year-old girl and the maturity factor."

Hmmm...the links between consumer "savvy" and child "empowerment" continue. In Canada, youth enthusiasm for cells is following a similar trajectory. The article goes on to cite Laurie Mah, director of research strategy at Youthography in a Toronto, who describes:
In three years, the proportion of Canadian phone-toting tweens (age 9-12) has gone "from practically nothing to 40 per cent," she noted.

Scott and Mah also have some interesting things to say about kiddie-tech phones like the MiGo:
While the number of young users has surged, kiddie-style phones with brightly coloured plastic handsets have flopped.

"Tweens don't want cellphones that look like toys," Mah said of models like the Firefly, offered by Rogers, and Telus's Migo. "They want a cellphone because they want to look grown-up. You can't demean them with products that feel like they're meant for their 4-year-old sister."

"One in three 8-year-olds has an iPod," agreed Lane. "They certainly don't want a kid phone."

Indeed! Despite the optimism of the mobile phone industry that this growth will continue, Disney is already pulling the plug on its Disney Mobile phone service (Note: However, they apparently plan to continue their Family Center child surveillance service through another carrier). Meanwhile, Helio and Kajeet were both quick to offer free switch-overs to Disney mobile consumers. It's been fascinating to watch even established brands struggle to capture/create this market..from the sporadic starts/restarts and failures of kiddie-tech phones like MiGo and Firefly, to Disney's short-lived attempt to re-brand itself as a mobile service provider. I suspect that a more successful brand expansion strategy will be found within content provision, a strategy that's currently being embraced by a number of kids' media giants, from the Cartoon Network, to Nickelodeon to Neopets Mobile. Even Sesame Workshop is getting in on the mobile bandwagon...according to Kidscreen the company is currently testing a new "mobile learning downloads" program that will send reminders and content to parents and kids to help with learning letters/reading (including clips from the show...the lines between edutainment and advertising continue to blur).

Additional news items on kids and mobile phones that I've been collecting over the past few weeks include a couple of articles from c|Net News about AT&T's new parental controls ("Smart Limits") feature and how it weighs in on the ongoing battle between schools and cell phones. Contrast the "safety" and "control" discourses promoted by AT&T et al. with a recent study by User Centric, that found rampant usability problems and failure rates in the parental control features of a number of media technologies, including mobile phones. The Chicago-based research group found a 36% failure rate and that "parents and children had similar failure rates when setting up parental controls" for mobile phones (and other devices). The study concluded that "Overall...participants' lack of understanding about ratings compromised their ability to successfully set up parental controls and that parents may be more confident than they should be that the controls are properly set."

Ahhh...It's really great to be getting back into my research topic just as so many new/ongoing developments and discussion around kids and technology are unfolding.

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