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Hot Line To Trouble: Should Parents Be Giving In To Their Children's Demands And Buying Them Mobile Phones?
Belfast Telegraph
January 13, 2000

HOW many of us have watched a train carriage or bus full of adults instinctively reach for their mobile phones - only to realise that the familiar ring is coming from a school child's rucksack? 

The recent revelation that almost 40% of people in the UK now have mobile phones can come as little or no surprise to anyone. 

But the mobile phone is far from being a purely adult phenomenon - it has also become the latest desirable accessory for children, outselling PlayStations, TVs and computers over Christmas. 

The percentage of under-18s using mobile phones has risen from 15% in 1998 to 35% last September. That figure is projected to reach at least 70% by 2002. 

Increasingly, the mobile phone companies are targeting younger and younger customers. Gimmicks such as coloured covers and icon-based messages such as teddy bears, smiley faces and broken hearts have proved popular with children. 

And in the not so distant future mobile phones look destined to be linked to the Internet. 

But should parents be giving into their children's demands and buying them mobile phones? 

There are obvious benefits such as round-the-clock contact, which could prove useful in emergencies. No parent likes to imagine their child stranded if a bus does not turn up or a promised lift does not materialise. A mobile also allows children to speak to their friends while keeping the family's main phone free. 

But there could be serious drawbacks to letting your child loose with a mobile phone, however much you trust them to use it sensibly. 

Scientists are already concerned about the possible health risks for children. 

Dr Gerard Hyland, a physicist from the University of Warwick, is among those who believe that it could be potentially very dangerous for young children to use mobile phones. 

Hyland, a specialist in the effect of low intensity radiation, says: "The problem is the electro magnetic emissions which come out in bursts from the body of a mobile phone. There is a certain frequency pattern in the emission that the brain happens to recognise. In children below the age of 12 the stability of the brain could be undermined and disrupted because their brain is in a more vulnerable state. 

"At the moment there is no evidence but the worry is that the problems could take time to manifest themselves. 

"The other problem is that a child's head absorbs the maximum amount of radiation because of its smaller size and this could potentially be very damaging. My advice to parents being asked by their child to give them a mobile phone is don't even think about it. 

"I think it is despicable that the industry is targeting children." 

Hyland warns that the radiation from mobile phones could also affect chemical activity in the brain. 

He says: "The blood brain barrier which keeps infections out of the brain could be made more permeable and that could increase the risk of infection." 

Hyland is keen to stress that not everybody would be affected in the same way, but he adds: "If it was your child the problem would be 100%".

The mobile phone industry claims that all mobiles produce less microwaves than even the new recommended limits. 

But Hyland says that this only addresses the heating ability, which is just part of the problem. 

He says: "There are other sensitivities not addressed by the safety regulations. For example flashing lights at a certain speed are banned on television because of the risk of seizures for epileptics. This has nothing to do with the brightness of the light, it has to do with its speed per second." 

Storing up health risks for the future may just be part of the problem. According to Dr Sidney Crown, a consultant psychotherapist, there could be real social damage involved with the widespread use of mobile phones among young people. 

He says: "I am worried about the potential for harassment. I think it could be a very nasty tool for bullying as the caller could remain anonymous. I would certainly recommend that mobile phone ownership was kept for adulthood." 

The worry is that it can be difficult to monitor who your children are calling or who is calling them. In fact there has already been a case of 'phone roulette' in which two Worthing schoolgirls played truant to meet a boy in Eccles, Manchester, who they had met by ringing random numbers. 

Dr Crown is also concerned about the knock-on effect from buying a child such an expensive toy. 

He says: "It doesn't just apply to mobile phones but there is a worry of giving children everything they demand at such an early age which ends up leaving little for the child to desire. I am also unsure if young children are up to the responsibility of looking after a mobile phone. 

"I would also not wish to encourage the couch potato mentality. The conversations I have heard between children on mobile phones have been totally trivial. They appear to be using it to make time pass. It is too negative and too passive a pastime." 

Finally, parents could be counting the cost in terms of cash. Unless you operate a pay-as-you-talk scheme there is the real risk of your child running up a huge bill. Ahmed Butt, a solicitor and debt counsellor at the Mary Ward Legal Centre in Bloomsbury, central London, said 10% of his clients were struggling to pay off their children's mobile bills. 

The new pre-pay phones, which can be bought for as little as GBP40 are proving extremely popular with parents but they downside is that they do carry fairly high airtime charges. 

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