Today's well-connected kid
By MONIQUE FIELDS, Times Staff Writer
At 12 years old, Crystal Wellhausen is a cell phone expert.
The Largo Middle School student has had her phone since she was 10, when her parents bought it for her so she could stay in touch at her karate tournaments. Now she regularly calls her friends, changes the ring tones and plays the game Brick Attack.
"It's silver, and it's, like, a Nokia," Crystal said. "It has a frog on the cover of it as a screen saver, and it glows when you use it."
The girls' dream of having a conventional land line phone in their bedroom is as out of date as black-and-white television and record players. It has to be cellular. And it won't wait for high school.
Cell phones now are essential accessories in middle school. One cellular company says research shows about 25 percent of kids age 10 to 14 have a cell phone. Two of every three who don't have cell phones want one.
"I think we're all realizing the youth market is very large and a very rapidly growing market place," said Dan Schulman, chief executive officer of Virgin Mobile USA, which launched a cellular service aimed at teens last summer.
Across the Tampa Bay area, more middle school students are using cell phones to call their friends, send text messages, vote for their favorite music videos and play electronic games.
Latrice Crook, 14, uses her phone for downloading SpongeBob SquarePants messages and looking at music offerings on VH1 and MTV. Her phone also features a "rescue ring."
"If you're on a date and you don't want to be there, it will call and you can make up a story," said the Meadowlawn Middle School student, who doesn't date.
If she did, she would schedule the ring to go off at a particular time, answer the phone, and report, "My mom told me to come home."
Back in the day, teens used to go to the school office or use a pay telephone to call their parents. Today they pull out cell phones after a basketball game or school dance, said Kathleen Flanagan, principal of Martinez Middle School in Tampa.
"It's so odd," she said. "My mom gave me a dime for that type of thing."
Cell phone companies have rolled out new prepaid phone plans and family plans, complete with several phones and a huge chunk of minutes, to attract young consumers. But parents usually pay the bills.
In a 2002 national survey, 30 percent of cell phone users said they had at least one child under age 18 who had a cell phone, an increase from 5 percent in 2000, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based research firm. Nearly 70 percent said they paid their children's cell phone bill.
"I bet you more than one parent has bailed their child out of excessive phone bills," said Albert Bashaw, director of student services and discipline for the district School Board of Pasco County.
"My dad says I have to be more responsible," said Romano, who attends Oak Grove. "I might spend my minutes in one day because I chat a lot on the phone."
She had 112 minutes when she opened her Christmas gift. This week she still had 48.
The number of children using cell phones is expected to rise sharply in the next few years.
"If one kid gets one phone or one type of service, he strongly influences behaviors," said Linda Barrabee, a senior analyst for the Yankee Group.
But there are families who are fighting the cell phone craze among middle school students.
Michael Bracht, 11, has been begging his parents for months to no avail. He recalled his parents' exact words as he ate his lunch at Tyrone Middle School in St. Petersburg.
"When you get a job and you pay your own bills, you can have a cell phone," said Bracht, whose father works in the press room for the St. Petersburg Times.
Taja Dorsey, 13, has the same issues with her mother.
"I don't know who's calling her," Sheila Dorsey said of her daughter. "She's 13. I definitely want to make sure it's not boys."
Others didn't run into so much telephone interference. Julie Quattrocki, 14, watched boys basketball at Oak Grove Middle School in Clearwater, as her phone rang. It was her mom, who was waiting outside the school in the family van.
"Okay, but it's not over until 5:30."
"I know. I said wait outside until 5:30."
"I'll be out in five minutes."
"Okay. Bye. Love you."
The Yankee Group research found nearly 60 percent of parents listed "security and emergency purposes" as the primary reason for giving a cell phone to a child or teenager.
Jessica Colas, a Largo student, received her phone after a man pulled his car beside her and a friend as they walked home from the bus stop. Her mother, Lorie VanMeter, finds comfort in knowing Jessica can call for help immediately.
"I wanted her to be able to reach me at any time," VanMeter said.
Or most any time.
In Pinellas and Pasco counties, only middle school and high school students may bring cell phones to school, while any student in Hillsborough may have one. In all cases, students are not supposed to use them at school.
So they carry the phones with them as an extension of the user's personality, with a cover or face plate for every interest. While at Largo Middle, Lisa Vallin pulled out a phone cover inspired by her favorite band, Green Day. Her friend Jessica has one with blue flames and one with an earpiece that smells and looks like an Oreo cookie.
Sometimes, students flout the cell phone rules.
While Meadowlawn teachers are teaching, their students silently send text messages to one another. One dials a friend's number, types in the word "Hey," and sends it. Seconds later, the friend's phone lights up and vibrates.
"We go back and forth when we have class," said Amanda Siezega, 13.
Text messages ring up at about 10 cents a message, and downloading ring tones, another popular pastime, costs as much as $1 apiece.
Some children pay for their own phones.
Rashad Moore, 14, bought his Nokia phone for $60 six months ago. He purchases a card for $20 or $30.
His cell phone serves as his electronic address book and part of his wardrobe at Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg.
When he meets a girl at the mall, he punches her telephone number into his cell phone. Girls may also notice that his cell phone matches what he is wearing. He has red, black, green and blue phone covers.
"If you got an all black outfit on," he said, "you put the black cover on."
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