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January 23, 2007 > Putting your teenager's cell phone to good use

Putting your teenager's cell phone to good use

By Jason Alderman

Many American teenagers seem to have a cell phone permanently glued to their ear. With more than 200 million U.S. cell phones now in use, they're clearly not going away, especially as cell phone manufacturers and service operators target younger audiences with ever-increasing features, including games. According a recent survey, parents said of their kids with cell phones, that 38 percent use them to play games more than once a week.

Parents usually foot the bill and many are torn between the convenience and security of being able to keep closer tabs on their children and the annoyance and expense these hunks of chirping metal can engender. Plus, some worry that cell phone Internet access may allow their children to access inappropriate websites.

In fact, a whole subspecies of "kid-friendly" cell phones and services that parents can monitor has emerged, including products from TicTalk (www.tictalk.com), FireFly (www.fireflymobile.com) and Disney (www.disneymobile.com). Common features include allowing parents to limit who can call and be called from the phone, limit the number of minutes allowed each month, set hours of operation and even include Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking, so they know their kids' whereabouts at all times.

One bit of good news is that in addition to photos, songs and annoying ring tones, more and more cell phone-downloadable educational games and software programs are becoming available that do everything from teach young children basic math, phonics and logic skills, to translate foreign languages, to help older students study for placement exams. While some of these programs are free, others charge a one-time download or monthly service fee for use.

For example, the TicTalk phone comes with LeapFrog games that teach math, spelling, science and social studies for grades one through six. Another good program that's targeted toward teenagers who use Cingular or Sprint phones with Internet access is a new, free game called Financial Football.

Jointly developed by Visa USA and the National Football League, Financial Football is the first free money management game developed for cell phone use. It teaches teenagers personal a variety of financial management skills - like learning how to pay for those cell phone bills themselves.

Financial Football combines the structure and rules of the NFL with financial education questions. Players can pick the teams they want to compete, choose the game length and set the level of question difficulty to make the game more or less challenging. Gamers gain yards and score points by answering questions correctly and lose yardage for wrong answers.

Parents, kids and teachers can download Financial Football by texting "Visa" to 24421. (Trust me, your kids can explain what "texting" means.) The game itself is free, though your cell phone carrier may charge you for airtime during the initial Internet connection and game downloading. Any such charges will be billed directly to your wireless bill.

For complete downloading instructions, frequently asked questions and a list of compatible phone model numbers, go to Visa's Practical Money Skills for Life Web site, www.practicalmoneyskills.com/football.

Remember, four out of five high school students graduate without taking a personal financial management class, yet they'll soon need to balance a checkbook, file taxes and manage credit cards. You might as well turn the necessary evil of cell phones into something a little more productive.

Jason Alderman directs the Practical Money Skills for Life program for Visa USA. You can find Financial Football and other games, as well as other personal finance tips, at www.practicalmoneyskills.com. As always, consult a financial professional regarding your particular situation.

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