Selling Wireless “Love”

Cell phones are a growing trend among the ‘tween set, as manufacturers have figured out how to tap into this gold mine demographic. Companies are targeting younger kids with accessories like self-stick faux gems and plush phone covers that turn phones into little stuffed animals. These add-ons allow kids to ‘personalize’ their phones, and they are inexpensive, so kids can buy them with their allowances.  Brilliant marketing, to be sure. Now … how to convince parents their youngsters need a cell phone in the first place? 

   Not long ago, I received a flyer in the mail advertising a cell phone for kids that seemed to answer the question. And as I realized what the ad was trying to do, I became increasingly bothered by it. Two questions were posed to parents:

Want to see if your kid is still at soccer without disrupting practice?” and,
“Want to make sure your kid can call you at lunch but not text friends during class?”

   The questions were, of course rhetorical, perhaps the most disturbing point of all. They were answered with two features available on the phone. One is a “Family Locator”, GPS technology which lets parents view a map to locate their child’s phone. The other is “Call Control”, allowing the parent to use the web to decide when their child’s phone can and can’t be used.

   I’m not disputing the convenience of cell phones; my husband and I both have them. Nor do I want to downplay their value in emergency situations. My gripe is with the spin, because to me, the ad reads like this:

‘Here’s a way to know exactly where your child is at all times, control his behavior in and outside of school, even when you’re not with him, and continue to foster his dependence on you. Now you can be sure that he will not have to make decisions without consulting you first, or deal with the consequences of his actions and potentially learn something from them.’

   Don’t get me wrong. I am as concerned for my child’s safety as any parent, and I don’t want him to get in trouble at school for doing things he shouldn’t be doing either. But I also recognize that, as a parent, it is my job to teach my son how to some day live in the world without me.  That means he must learn to take responsibility for his actions (be safe, do what is expected of him in school) and deal with the consequences when he chooses to disregard that responsibility. If he talked in class, he’d lose recess. If he wandered off from soccer practice, he would hear about it from his coach and teammates when he didn’t perform well at the next game, and if I came to pick him up and he wasn’t there, he’d lose privileges at home. The way I see it, if Johnny is in danger of wandering away from soccer practice because he’s too young, then mom or dad should be at practice with him. And if he’s older and told not to wander off, and does it anyway, there are bigger problems going on that a cell phone tracking device isn’t going to fix. 

   I find it ironic that these “communication tools” are potentially being used as a substitute for conversations between parents and kids about how to handle themselves when they are away from home. Living in a society that is driven by fear is a terrible thing. But it is made worse when what we fear is exaggerated or actually manufactured by companies in order to sell products. My concern is that parents do not see it happening.

   Another company that is marketing specialized cell phones to pre-teens puts it a different way. In a press release, parents are told, “For a parent running a full life, it is reassuring to know that whenever there is a need, they can make direct contact with their child. Kids feel greater self-confidence when they are able to communicate, whenever they need to, with important people in their lives.”

   I disagree. I think children feel greater self-confidence when they are given opportunities to think for themselves, without asking mom or dad, “What should I do?” every time a questionable situation arises. Always being on the other end of the phone line doesn’t say ‘I love you’ to our children.  It sends them the message that not only do we think they can’t exist on their own, we don’t expect them to.

   When we stretch the proverbial umbilical cord and refuse to allow our children to be responsible for their own actions, they lose out. I may sound like my grandmother here, but I believe trying and failing is the best way to build strength of character, and learn perseverance and courage. If our children don’t know their own capabilities, how can they ever grow up and leave home? And if we are styling their lives so that they’ll never risk getting hurt or in trouble, we are only perpetuating the problem.

   Of course, businesses selling products for children are trying to get the most out of this lucrative customer demographic. By marketing to parents’ fears and insecurities, they aim to keep children dependent on products, and their parents, for as long as possible so that they can keep making money. But at the end of the day, how much stuff our kids have will mean nothing if they can’t think for themselves.  That, to me, is just an old lesson in need of a new spin. My generation learned it long before cell phones were invented.