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More 'tweens' going mobile

Some cellphone firms see market for 8-year-olds

CHICAGO -- There were two things 11-year-old Patty Wiegner really, really, really wanted for Christmas. One was a furry, playful dog that's now filling her parents' home with the sound of barking. The other gift makes a different kind of noise -- it has a ring tone that mimics rapper 50 Cent's hit song ''Candy Shop."

While some might question why someone so young might need one, and some scientists have expressed health concerns, Patty is one of many kids her age who are asking their parents for cellphones. And increasingly, they're getting them.

''It's cool and popular," Patty, a sixth-grader in Valrico, Fla., says of her reason for wanting the mobile phone. ''And I can talk to my friends and talk to my dad and mom." Her mom, Lisa Wiegner, wasn't entirely thrilled with the idea but gave in because she likes knowing her daughter can contact her if she needs to. ''And," mom says, ''I wanted to be able to be in touch with her in an emergency."

Some parents have been prompted to add their kids because their wireless companies offer ''family plans." Now, a few other companies are pushing the trend further by creating specific products for ''tweens," a population of preteens as young as 8 that some consider the next big, untapped market of cellphone users.

Firefly Mobile, one company that's developed a cellphone product for younger users, found that about 10 percent of tweens in its focus groups had phones, but that many more wanted them. The company also identified parent interest in a product that would allow them to keep tabs on their kids.

The Firefly phone, created by a father in Illinois and being launched nationwide in months to come, is smaller than other cellphones, allowing it to fit more easily in a kid's hand. It has simpler buttons, including ones that speed dial ''Mom" or ''Dad" -- and gives parents more control by giving them password-protected access for programming the numbers the phone can dial and calls it can receive.

The Firefly phone also has no games or capabilities for text messaging, a popular function with teens that some parents dislike because it can get expensive -- and distracting.

It remains to be seen whether options like these will be a hit with their target age group.

Some kids say any phone is better than no phone. But others say they think they're old enough to handle a standard cellphone -- and abide by the limits their parents place on calling during expensive weekday hours.

''It shows if you're mature; it's a privilege to get a phone," says Stephanie Beaird, a 12-year-old in Northridge, Calif., who recently got a cellphone after begging her parents for more than a year.

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