For many, cell phones, computers integral part of everyday life

Kristin Smothermon of Albuquerque uses her cell phone while visiting her sister in Clovis. Smothermon, 16, received the phone from her parents two years ago. (Staff photo: Marlena Hartz)

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Inside 16-year-old Kristin Smothermon’s purse is a flip-top Motorola cellular phone. The Albuquerque teen takes it with her most places she goes — school, weekend trips, basketball and track practice. The palm-sized phone has even become a bed-time companion.

“I talk to my boyfriend for hours at night,” said Smothermon, who was visiting her sister Saturday in Clovis. “And I text-message my friends a lot.”

Smothermon said her parents were first reluctant to purchase her a cell phone.

“I told them it would be easier for them to get a hold of me,” Smothermon said of the rationale that for the teenager ended with cell phone in hand.

Many wireless services are catching on to the pitch, as well as a virgin consumer group, by combining phones that appeal to younger and younger age groups with advertising campaigns that make sense to their parents.

Walt Disney Co. will soon catapult a mobile phone service for families, and Mattel Inc. hopes to debut a Barbie-themed phone shortly. The new Firefly phone, designed to resemble a toy, now populates the shelves at Plateau Wireless stores. Available in an array of translucent colors, it glows in the dark and can blink like its namesake.

Jack Nuttall, product manager for Plateau Wireless, said the phone, targeted to the 6-to-12 age group, is a communication device for parents.

“It is a safety communications device for the child. With everything going on these days — kidnappings, children missing — it is a device for parents to put in their children’s hand, to not only be safe, but to have a little communication,” Nuttall said from his office while also lauding the child-specific features of the phone — a mom and dad key, a locked address book with limited storage capacity, and a 911 button.

Plateau retail manager Kathy Bridges said about 60 Fireflys have been sold in the eastern New Mexico region. The company will launch a more aggressive advertising campaign, she said, when school starts in the fall.

Renee Crespin, a mother of two from Clovis, thought it wise to equip her young daughters with cell phones for their walk home from school. The pre-paid phone, Crespin said, is “purely for safety.”

The drive to introduce technology to younger audiences doesn’t end with cellular phones.

Gov. Bill Richardson set aside $1 million to furnish New Mexico seventh graders and their teachers with their own personal laptops. The initiative, launched in 2004, is still in its beginning phases, but according to David Whitehead, Clovis Municipal Schools director of information technology, the laptops may be available to local seventh graders by 2007.

“The students would then be able to take a laptop home with them like they would take a book home with them. Part of the plan is to provide Internet service at some homes through reduced rates, so that all kids can have access regardless of income,” said Whitehead, who is already prepping schools for wireless service and laptop arrival.

Some parents, however, are concerned by the technology thrust.

Charles and Chanel Stamper have two children, 5 and 12, ripe ages for techno gadgets, according to cell phone providers and Richardson’s initiative. But the Clovis couple disagrees. Although their 12-year-old son is relentless in his pursuit of technology — at one point, asking daily for a cell phone and a computer, devices most of his peers already possess — the couple repeatedly refuses to purchase either for their son.

“I know if he had a computer or a cell phone, he would just sit up in his room all day, e-mailing and talking to his friends. We would never see him,” Chanel Stamper said. “To me, it’s (technology) a distraction. Quality time in the home is taken out. It’s like parents are trying to occupy their children for the parent’s sake, so they can have more time to do what they want to do, rather than fill a child’s need.”

Further compounding the couple’s concerns are Internet pitfalls — pornography, adult chat rooms, pop-ups, and identity theft.

However, many of those most steeped in the education world feel the technology invasion is not only inevitable, it has already arrived.

Ron Stowe, president of the Institute for Education and the Arts based in Washington, feels it is better to have wise hands gently guide a child’s relationship with technology, than have the child navigate it him or herself.

“At these age groups, you certainly need to give a lot of guidance, as well as a lot of oversight,” said Stowe.

Lorraine Richards of Portales found that out the hard way when her son became “addicted” to Playstation video games.

“I limit the time he can play the games,” Richards said. Before she did, she said her son would spend hours holed up in his room, obsessed with moving to more advanced gaming levels. She noticed a marked difference in his attitude on the days he played for more than a couple of hours — he was irritable and easily frustrated. Sibling fights also broke out in the household until she stepped in and set rules, such as making Playstation a reward for completing homework and chores.

Debra Keagle, manager at Game Stop in Clovis, said some of children begin playing video games as young as 2 — and one company, she said, recently introduced “Plug and Play,” a battery-operated product with built-in games, which can be plugged into the television, recommended for children as young as 5.

“Technology,” sums up Stowe, “can be a wonderful tool. Like anything else, these pieces of technology are potentially beneficial and potentially distracting. It is a very interesting challenge — to take what students think of as play and entertainment and try to evolve that into a learning tool.”