Almost half of 10 – 18 year olds in the US use cell phones, representing a total market value of $10.7 billion, according to GfK NOP Technology’s new mKids Study, released today. Among the growing teen and tween market, Verizon Wireless is the leading provider in terms of both awareness (46%) and share (30%). Sprint PCS/Nextel also achieved a high awareness level (42%), but its share remained steady at 10%. Cingular/AT&T Wireless maintained a significant 40% awareness level but saw its share drop 5% over the least year, from 32% to 27%.

“The teen and tween market is a critical one for wireless providers to capture, with 70% of its value coming from kids who spend more than $50 per month on their phone service,” says Ben Rogers, Vice President, GfK NOP Technology. “Clearly, the days when parents admonished their kids to use cell phones only for emergencies are over. Now, cell phones are a staple of teen and tween life, not only for calling friends and family but also for a range of other activities.

“For instance, 53% of kids play games on their phones, with more than a third downloading new games … 52% use their phone’s calendar/organizer option … and nearly all teens who have camera phones are snapping pictures. In addition, the overwhelming majority of teen and tween cell phone owners — 89% — have used or changed their ring tones, to add a personal touch to their cells.”

Parents Still Footing the Bill, though Purchase Decisions Are Shared

Parents continue to pay for almost three-quarters of cell phone service for teens and tweens. Parental support for cell phone bills declines, however, as kids get older, with parents picking up just 58% of service for 18 year olds.

Although parents are paying the lion’s share of charges, they are sharing decision making with their kids. Though most parents (69%) dominate service provider choices, most teens (64%) have a larger voice in phone selection, with Nokia and Motorola their top choices. Each of those companies now provides phones to about one fifth of teens and tweens with cells. LG and Sansung also have a strong presence in the teen and tween market.

“Switching” Is Fueled by Older Teens

On average, kids get their first phones at age 14, and 70% of cell users are still with their first provider. Just 8% plan to make a switch in the next 6 months. When switching does occur, it is often fueled by older teens, who are most likely to have switched providers (23%) or have plans to switch (11%).