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Should We Give Five Year Olds Mobiles?
Forget fashionable trainers and toys. The only must_have accessory in Britain's playgrounds is a mobile phone.
With Britney Spears and Westlife ringtones and Harry Potter and Barbie cases on sale, schoolchildren are the fastest growing market for mobiles. A new report says more than 400,000 children aged five to nine now own a handset. The figure has doubled over the past two years.
Experts predict that by 2006 almost one in five will be be connected to a network. If that seems excessive, over-protective parents are partly to blame. Fears that their children might be kidnapped or in danger and unable to contact them are prompting mums and dads to buy their little ones the latest handset.
But there are worries that by trying to give parents peace of mind we could be damaging our children's health. Not only that, but we could be exposing them to the very dangers we are trying to protect them from: paedophiles, bullies and criminals.
The issue of whether mobile phones damage our children's health has yet to be conclusively decided. Three years ago the Stewart Committee found no known health problems caused by mobile phones but admitted that more research needed to be done. Sir William Stewart, the scientist behind the study, said he had stopped his grandchildren using them. The report recommended that youngsters use the handset only for short, essential calls, warning: "Children should be especially careful about mobile phones' use. "Their skulls are still growing, so it is easier for radio waves from a mobile phone to enter their heads.
"In November 2000 British scientist Dr Gerard Hyland said he believed that anecdotal reports of mobile phones causing headaches and lack of sleep could be accurate. Other scientists claim to have found evidence that the radiation emitted could change the shape of a human cell.
The government is clearly concerned. It has embarked on a study into potential health risks to the young to find out whether mobile phones are as safe as the mobile industry has been claiming. No fewer than 15 research programmes involving volunteers were announced in January last year. Four of the studies will investigate whether using mobiles can cause brain cancer or leukaemia. Another four will look at the interaction of radio signals with the body, to discover how much energy is deposited and where. Other studies will look at the effects mobile phones have on blood pressure, hearing, brain function and ability to drive.
Mirror columnist Dr Miriam Stoppard receives many letters from parents worried that they may be harming their children's health by supplying them with a phone. "Despite assurances from mobile phone manufacturers, many people are still concerned," she says. "Some scientists believe mobile phones are more of a health risk than the industry admits. Others believe it's too early to say for certain.
"We'll have to wait and see if the government's investigations offer proof that mobile phones are harmful to health. "But in the meantime I recommend that children only use their phone when necessary and keep the calls short. "They should carry the phone away from the body when it's on stand-by and have a phone with a long talk time because it is more efficient and has less powerful emissions.
It's not only health issues which are worrying. The dangers of children being "groomed" by paedophiles in internet chat rooms will increase with the new generation of video mobile phones. Last month a Home Office task force reported that although it was possible to seize computers in order to find evidence of child pornography, the latest camera phones could allow images to be sent and received without a trace. Dr Rachel O'Connell, who wrote the report, said: "Paedophiles may ask children to send pictures of their face or holiday snaps before asking them to take photographs of themselves naked or performing sex acts. "If the child records a pornographic image of himself or herself and then sends it to the adult with a sexual interest in children, strictly speaking a child may be said to have become both the producer and distributor of child pornography."
However, it seems the main dangers with mobiles come from other children. Playground bullies who once targeted their victims for their lunch money are now bombarding children with text messages. It is estimated that one in four children are bullied via mobiles. Messages such as "I'm going to kill you" or "Look out" are common threats. According to one report, a 16_year old girl had taken an overdose of painkillers to escape the bullying. After she recovered, she received a text saying: "Sorry, you should have killed yourself.
"Michelle Elliot of the children's charity Kidscape says: "More and more younger children are being bullied by text message. "We've encountered children being harassed almost day and night. Some are suicidal because they can never get away from it. In the worse cases, parents give them a new number, but somehow the bullies always find out what it is. It's becoming a real issue. "We suggest you keep all the messages, because there is the technology to trace them. I think the only way to deal with bullies is to take their phone from them."
As well as bullying, youngsters with mobile phones run a far greater risk of becoming victims of street crime. Phones are involved in almost half of all robberies involving children in Britain. And school-age children are five times more likely to be victims of mobile phone thefts than adults, according to Home Office statistics.
The phone firms say they do not market their products to children. And a spokeswoman for the Mobile Operators Association claims there are no health implications for children using phones. She adds: "Mobile phones for young people are popular with parents because they provide personal security and the ability for parents and children to contact each other easily." Parents need to weigh up the risk of possible future unknown health effects against the tangible benefits. "This is about parental choice and responsibility."