Another Kind of Cell Damage

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The Feature on 13 April 2005

Mobile phones marketed to children may cause less injury to tykes than they do to the image of the entire wireless industry.

Only in America are marketers desperate enough to defy common sense without a second thought. Some companies approach their customer bases with the kind of short-term aims that threaten not only their own interests, but everybody else’s as well.

Just as we all know that some scientist in a strange renegade country will be reckless enough to clone a human being or develop a killer strain of anthrax no matter what the international scientific or legal consensus, we have also always known that some company, most likely in the United States, would be foolish enough to breach the unspoken pact not to market cell phones directly to children.

Enter Firefly Mobile. Clearly inspired by the news that only 1% of American children under the age of 9 owned cell phones in 2004 (how can an eight-year-old actually own anything?) the company has created a handset for pre and pre-preteens.

Sure, cell phones have always been marketed at kids – but only in that wink-wink way that the beer and cigarette companies do it. Everyone knew that Joe Camel was, at heart, a version of Tony the Tiger for cigarettes. (And whether or not the word “pre-teen” was ever uttered in an RJR Nabisco board room, the campaign proved such a hit with kids that Camel sales went up 8000% among American teens, with one in four kids 12-17 saying they smoke Camels, and 91% of six-year-olds recognizing the character, compared with just 67% of adults.)

Like cigarette companies, handset manufacturers and operators have always tended to market to young people indirectly, through the design cues of phones or the packaging of content. DIC Entertainment provides streaming animation for mobile phones that only kids would want, and Mattel is hard at work on a Barbie cell phone. But even these efforts in integrated branding can be seen as comparatively indirect ploys to bring kids into the wireless family.

Until now, no one has dared to cross the invisible line protecting kids from an industry’s desire to expand. It’s as if everyone understood that the health and social issues associated with cell phone use – from brain cancer to restaurant manners – would remain in the relatively unspoken subtext or be relegated to conspiracy theory as long as no one gave people a reason to think too hard about them.

That’s why, after what we can only imagine was a tremendous R&D investment, UK company Commun8 finally saw the light and halted the release of its MyMo mobile phone targeted at children. Their original launch date turned out to be in the immediate wake of a negative report about mobile phones and health issued by the UK National Radiological Protection Board. It would have been a recipe for media’s version of a perfect storm.

Here in the United States, perfect storms be damned. True, Firefly Mobile was only able to secure a contract with one hapless company, SunCom, a carrier covering parts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky. And both partners have attempted to cast their rather limited launch as the special “test flight” of a brave new technology.

Initial word from SunCom suggested a 6-12-year-old target audience for the voice-only device, but they upped the official range to 8-12 as the first articles about the phone were being prepared by local journalists. While that has helped stave off comments from folks like me that used “kindergarten” and “cell phone” in the same sentence, it doesn’t change the fact that their new kiddie phone presses an issue that may have been better left unpressed.

In the parlance of drug abuse, the phone is clearly only a “gateway” device to harder technology. There’s no numeric keypad, only buttons for mommy, daddy, 911 emergency services and a phonebook of 20 numbers presumably entered in by a parent. But that should be enough of a taste to get the little ones who are using these pared down communicators into the cellular groove by the time they’re finishing the first grade.

Suncom’s publicity is clearly targeted at adults, making the Firefly look like a great way for children to stay in touch with their parents, let them know where they’re going, or even call for help in an emergency. And while an 8-year-old’s independence and agency are certainly to be encouraged on some level, I’d rather mine be a little more tethered to landline reality (or a friend’s parent’s cell phone) until she reaches at least the double digits. The two-tiered marketing scheme, of course, is aimed at lowering parental resistance through the ads, while enticing children with the brightly colored phones. (This same strategy was depicted in the recent movie In Good Company, but only as a way of portraying a comically unscrupulous businessman!)

The real problem with these phones, however, is not that they’ll hurt children directly but that their mere existence opens a Pandora’s box of new cogitation about the potential dangers of cell phones. This industry does not need consumers witnessing a high-wattage transceiver pressed against the soft ear of a child, or pondering the effect an application clearly aimed at coaxing preliterate eyes to stay glued to a two-inch screen for six hours straight.

Adults’ perceptions of their own relationships to their cell phones is going to change, as well. As they ponder whether a child’s brain cells really are heated up and damaged by electromagnetic radiation, or if their developing thumbs are at risk from high-twitch cell phone game play, their association of cell phones with physical danger and marketing madness will only be reinforced.

And as they begin to wonder why in the world, given all these risks, should a child be allowed to use a cell phone, they may also start to wonder why in the world they should want to use one themselves.