• 23 JUN 09
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    #1078: Half of British children aged 5 to 9 own a mobile phone, and a brand for tots is imminent

    From Martin Weatherall:

    Half of British children aged 5 to 9 own a mobile phone, and a brand for tots is imminent. Some experts are unhappy

    From The Times

    June 23, 2009

    John Naish

    In a world where everyone is busy texting and chatting, more and more parents believe that their little ones should join the fun. In spite of dire warnings about the long-term harm that mobile phone use may wreak on young children”™s mental and physical health, we have just passed the tipping point: more than half of British children aged between 5 and 9 own a mobile phone.

    Now, in this rapidly expanding market, a major network is about to adopt a range of kiddie-phones designed for children as young as 4, with claims that its handsets are safer and smarter. But can there be any sense in texting toddlers?

    Health concerns about the impact of mobile phone use on adults”™ brains may have largely subsided but government guidelines still warn that children”™s vulnerable grey matter should be protected. Professor Lawrie Challis, an emeritus professor of physics who has led the Government”™s mobile-phone safety research, says that parents should not give children phones before secondary school. After that, they should encourage them to text rather than to make calls, as texting exposes their brains to lower levels of electromagnetic radiation.

    “We have no idea if they are different in reaction to this sort of radio frequency,” says Challis, “but there are reasons why they may be “” children react differently to ionising radiation, radioactivity and gamma rays. If you are exposed to too much sunlight as a child, you are far more likely to get skin cancer than if you are exposed as an adult.”

    A disturbing study by researchers at Γ–rebro University Hospital in Sweden last year indicated that children may be five times more likely to get brain cancer if they use mobiles phones.

    On top of this comes new concern about the long-term effects of mobile phone use on the mental health of youngsters. This month Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a leading Australian psychologist, called parents who allow young children to use mobile phones “insane”. Carr-Gregg, a University of Melbourne professor of paediatrics, is worried about the power of mobile phones to distract and overexcite.

    According to a new survey conducted by Carr-Gregg, 40 per cent of children with mobile phones are sleepdeprived on school nights, as peer pressure has made it normal for children of 6 and 7 to stay up until the early hours texting friends. His evidence, revealed in a series of Australian academic seminars, suggests that millions of children are allowed mobile phones in their bedrooms, creating a generation of overtired “zombies”.

    Other new research has linked sleep deprivation in children with hyperactivity symptoms and hormone imbalances that increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. Carr-Gregg says that no child should be allowed a mobile phone until the age of 12.

    Nevertheless, the landmark point at which more than half of British children aged between 5 and 9 own mobiles has been passed, according to research by Josh Dhaliwal, the co-founder of MobileYouth, a specialist research consultancy that tracks young people”™s technology use. “Lots of children”™s phones tend to be hand-me-downs from adults,” he says. “My sister gave her seven-year-old daughter a mobile for her birthday and that”™s about the norm now.”

    Sensibilities are changing rapidly: a recent poll by Populous suggested that the number of parents who believe that it is acceptable to allow a child under 12 to own a mobile phone has increased by more than a third in the past 12 months. Until now, fears of a parental backlash have deterred mobile networks from marketing handsets in the UK specifically for the very young. A planned Disney service aimed at those aged 8 to 14 was scrapped in 2006 because of an “adverse retail environment”. All that is about to change, says Dhaliwal.

    Enter the candy-coloured, brightly lit Firefly Mobile, specially designed for children aged from 4 to 12, with simplified controls (only five buttons) and a restricted set of functions. Kevin and Frances Crean, a Dublin-based husband and wife who are marketing it, say that the phone will launch in Britain on a major network before the end of the year. The toy-like handset has an “on” switch, an “off” switch and two buttons with a male and female figure on “” one calls mum, the other dad (perfect for traditional families). Another button accesses a phone book that contains up to 20 numbers. The phone book is PIN-protected and so can be entered, to begin with at least, only under parental supervision. The phone cannot download internet files and can be set up to block calls from numbers that it doesn”™t recognise.

    Frances Crean, a mother of three, says that a family panic led them to look for a youngster-friendly phone: “In summer 2006 we had a health scare with our daughter. She was 6 and attending a day camp when she developed a sore neck and a rash “” classic symptoms of meningitis. Nobody at the camp had contacted us to say that she was unwell, but when she was collected we realised that she looked very ill and rushed her to hospital. Thankfully we got the all-clear. We wanted to find a phone that would be safe for her and found this one being made in America. We felt that if we didn”™t market it now, someone else would.”

    It helped that her husband is a former sales director for a mobile phone company, although Crean, 34, says that the Β£85 phone”™s specially limited features mean that it is no great money-spinner for network operators. “They are not designed to encourage children to spend time chatting. Nor can you take photographs or send texts, though on one of our models children can receive them.” The phone”™s text-less nature means that it is far less likely to be misused in the playground for virtual bullying. The creators also claim that it produces levels of electromagnetic radiation that are below the European recommended levels. These limits are, however, set for adult use of phones: the European Parliament has urged European ministers to bring in stricter limits for children”™s exposure.

    Crean adds that the phones are marketed at parents rather than at children “” this is important in Britain, as the network operators have agreed a code of conduct which stipulates that they won”™t market phones specifically to under-16s. But what constitutes marketing to children can be moot: in the Irish Republic, where the toy-like handset is already on sale, the phone”™s vendors includes Smyths, the country”™s biggest toy store, and the Creans ran a short radio and bus advertising campaign for Christmas.

    Crean says that despite the restricted functions, the handset passes the kiddy-credibility test. “Our eldest daughter is 9 and understands why it isn”™t good for her to have a regular mobile,” she says. “A good few of her friends have normal ones, though.”

    More than 7,000 handsets have already been sold in Ireland, and the Creans are currently deep in commercial talks with several UK networks. “We are definitely going to have the product launched there before the end of this year,” she says. “In Ireland our phones have just had a network launch with O2, having been marketed initially as a sim-card-free phone two years ago.”

    Not everyone in Ireland considers the Firefly a boon for young children, though. Aine Lynch, the chief executive of the National Parents Council, argues that the Firefly would be more appropriate for children aged 11 or 12, rather than those as young as 4. She points out that it would prevent them from accessing the internet, ringing up inflated phone bills or calling and texting people unknown to their parents. “Targeting a phone at a four-year-old causes us concern,” she says. “It gives rise to questions as to where parental responsibility is going. Why would kids need to be contacted by mobile phone? Why are they not in the care of their parents, teachers or supervisors?”

    Other European countries are heading in the opposite direction to Britain and Ireland: the French Government introduced laws earlier this year that ban sales of mobile phones to children under 6 and prohibit advertising them to children under 12. And a report released in January by the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority concluded that children”™s use of mobile phones should be limited until the potential long-term health risks are identified. But in Britain, the Government”™s watchdog, the Mobile Telecommunications and Health Research Programme, appears to have stalled on its declared plan to fund such a study. No work has been commissioned from its Β£3.1 million research budget.

    Given this apparent official indifference, toddler-phones are set to become an increasingly common UK phenomenon, says MobileYouth”™s Dhaliwal. Several other companies, including Samsung, are building handsets for children aged 4-5 with limited functionality, though none is yet signed to a UK network, he says. Given the parental enthusiasm for dialling up their little darlings, such phones may prove to be the best option, he adds. “There are legitimate reasons why you would not sensibly want a child to have a fully functioning handset, even though people currently do this. You are giving them access to the internet and you can”™t control what sort of people gain access to them. At least restricted kiddie mobiles prevent this from happening.”

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