Cell Phones Catering To Kids

As cell phones get smaller and smaller, the people using them are getting younger and younger.

And companies are catching on, making phones just for kids, and offering calling plans so families can keep in touch.

Having a cell phone was once a luxury, but not anymore. Everyone seems to have one.

For kids, getting a cell phone is becoming a right of passage.

As part of The Early Show's "Cellular Nation" series, CBS News Correspondent Susan Koeppen went to Alexa McKenney's house, where she met the 11 year-old and some of her friends: a bunch of sixth graders. All of them are dialed in.

So, what's the best part of having a phone?

"Having the privilege to talk to people," Alexa says.

She adds that she begged her parents for a phone, until she got one. Now her mom is convinced it's a good idea.

Susan McKenney says, "I can be in touch with her any time."

Author Paul Levinson asserts, "Cell phones are the greatest thing since sliced bread, as far as parents are concerned."

He is the author of "Cellphone: The Story Of The World's Most Mobile Medium And How It Has Transformed Everything."

Levinson notes, "They've changed our lives, because they make us able to reach anyone any time we want."

Kids can keep in touch with mom and dad -- just what parents want.

But cell phones have started a whole new set of headaches for teachers and principals.

Middle school principal Jeffrey O'Donnell says, "We found that they were going into the bathrooms and calling their friends who were home sick. Or, occasionally, (cell phones) go off in a classroom -- and can be disruptive to the class."

Sixth graders Koeppen spoke with have a new policy at their school: Cell phones stay in the lockers, until the end of the school day.

While parents may enjoy knowing their kids are just a phone call away, the freedom and mobility of a cell phone means kids can call anyone they want, and anyone can call them.

Levinson notes, "I think that there is a danger of people who parents don't want talking to their kids, having access to them."

Even so, more and more parents are getting cell phones for their kids.

According to one study, in 2003, one third of U.S. kids aged 11-to-16 had their own cell phones. By the end of 2003, estimates grew to 40 percent. In 2004, nearly half the kids in this age group had cell phones. (Source: Yankee Group's 2003/2004 Mobile User Teen/Youth Surveys)

Kids and cell phones are big business, and making headlines.

The new Firefly phone is for kids ages 8 to 12. It lets them call mom, dad and 9-11. Toy-makers such as Mattel and Hasbro are planning to market phones for kids later this year.

Star magazine says cell phones for kids are the "in" thing this spring. But the group of kids Koeppen was with noted that going cellular doesn't necessarily make you cool.

"There are a lot of cool kids in our grade who don't have them," middle school student Julia Pernicone said.

But having a phone gets you noticed.

Julia continued, "People like to be like: 'Oh, can I see? Do you have any games? Can I hear your ring tones? Can I be in your phone book? Can you take a picture of me?' "

So whether it's a catchy ring tone, flashing lights, or fancy covers, the cell phone has captivated kids.

"If I didn't have my phone for a little while, I would go crazy," Sixth grader Julia Selig said.

Are cell phones necessary? Maybe not.

"I'd live," sixth grader Dan Leibel said. "I really don't need my phone."

But there's no doubt, it's changed the way kids live.

What would they think if they had to use a pay phone?

"Those are so gross!" the kids exclaim in unison. "Fifty cents!

These kids say they are all very responsible with their phones. But parents need to be alert: Kids can ring up very big cell phone bills if they're not careful.

A phone like the Firefly gives parents a lot of control of their kids cell phone use.