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Should You Buy Your Child A Mobile Phone For Christmas?
Journalist: Gillian Bowditch
December 13, 2004

Amy Scott's Christmas list includes the Natasha Bedingfield CD Unwritten, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban on DVD and a Nokia 3220. Although she is only ten, the trend-setters in her year at school already have their own mobile phones. For them, a mobile is more than just a means of communication; it is a technological key to a sophisticated adult world.

"It’s really cool," says Amy. "It’s got a camera and lights and great games. It’s just a really fun thing to have." For Amy, a Nokia is not so much a telephone as a major status symbol.

One mobile phone is sold in Britain every minute and the fastest-growing sector of the market is sales to children. According to a recent survey by market analysts Mintel, the proportion of primary school children with mobile phones has doubled since 2001. A quarter of seven to ten-year-olds now own their own phone.

But, unlike other must-have technology, there is a question over the safety of mobile phones for children. In May 2000, Sir William Stewart, a former government chief scientist, advised "a precautionary approach" to using mobile phones. As head of the National Radiological Protection Board, he chaired the Independent Expert Group on Mobile Phones, set up by the government to look into the health implications of the industry.

The committee found no compelling evidence that mobile phones were harmful but, because they represent relatively new technology and because very little scientific research has been undertaken, it urged caution. The fear is that children, in particular, could be more vulnerable to radiation from the handsets as their nervous systems are still developing and their skulls are thinner than adults’.

Stewart advised that children under the age of 16 should restrict mobile phone use to essential calls and keep call lengths to a minimum. More recently he has said he would not allow his grandchildren to have mobile phones. But in the four-and-a-half years since the committee urged caution, the number of mobile phones in Britain has more than doubled from 25 million to over 50 million.

Stewart is expected to give an update on his advice next month, but, in the meantime, what should parents faced with their children’s demands for a mobile this Christmas do?

Dr Michael Clark, of the National Radiological Protection Board, says: "The Stewart report stopped short of saying phones shouldn’t be given to children. A lot of parents want their children to have phones to keep in touch. So the advice given was to minimise calls. I do a lot of schools talks and most parents and children aren’t at all worried about potential damage from mobile phones."

According to the pressure group, Powerwatch, extensive mobile phone use "is associated with brain tumours, memory and concentration problems and early-onset dementia". Alasdair Philips, an engineer who runs Powerwatch, says: "We don’t know if any use of a mobile phone is safe in the long term."

Naturally, the industry sees it differently. Motorola’s website says: "There is no scientific basis to restrict the use of mobile phones by children and this remains a matter open for parental choice. Many parents value wireless phones for the personal comfort that comes from being connected with members of their families. We believe they can continue to do so with confidence in the safety of these products."

The main concern about mobile phones relates to the emission of radio frequency (RF) radiation from the handsets and from the base stations (the masts) which receive and transmit the signals. The exposure from hand-held phones to the side of the head is considerably higher than the exposure from the masts. The Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) is the unit of measurement for the amount of RF energy absorbed by the body when using a mobile phone. The thinking is that the lower the SAR rating of the phone, the potentially safer it is.

Duncan Rogers has worked in the mobile phone industry for more than a decade and he is very concerned about the long-term health implications of mobile phones. He agreed to speak to The Scotsman under a pseudonym.

"About five years ago I was given a handset by the company for whom I was then working," he says. "I travelled a huge amount in my job and I used the phone for hours every day. Then I started to develop sore spots above my ears. I looked around and people such as Richard Branson and folk at the cutting edge of technology were all using earpieces, so I decided to get one. I stopped using that phone and got one with a lower SAR rating. Even now, if I spend a long time on the phone, the pain in my head comes back."

Rogers does not allow his four children to have mobile phones. There is a family phone which his oldest son can take for after-school activities on the understanding that it is only used for emergencies. He has been taught to hold the phone away from his body when making a call, as the surge of power is greatest when the initial connection is made, and to keep calls brief. Once the signal is established, the power drops by about two-thirds. Texting is also considered safer, because it uses much less power than phoning and the phone is used away from the head. Recently, however, there have been concerns that texting at lap level may lead to a reduction in male fertility. "That initial surge when you make a phone call is potentially the most damaging," Rogers says. "The real worry is that as we move to 3G technology, the power of the phone, in terms of what it has to send and receive, is higher."

In October this year, scientists at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm published research showing that those who have used mobile phones for ten years or more were 1.9 times as likely to develop an acoustic neuroma - a tumour on the nerve connecting the ear to the brain - than non-users. The tumours are non-cancerous, but they can cause severe nerve and brain damage.

Another problem is that people tend to buy the cheapest phones for their children. These phones have less internal insulation than their more expensive counterparts.

The phone manufacturers dispute the idea there is any problem with their products. Michael Milligan, of the Mobile Manufacturers Forum, says: "The health and safety of children is of concern to all of us. Mobile phones are designed and tested to comply with science-based guidelines, including those endorsed by the World Health Organisation. These guidelines take the safety of children and other segments of the population into account by providing additional margins of safety."

Milligan points out that the US Food and Drug Administration recently updated its advice on mobile phones and concluded: "The scientific evidence does not show a danger to users of wireless phones, including children and teenagers."

The Health Council of the Netherlands has also given the phones the all-clear. "The Committee feels that there are no health-based reasons for limiting the use of mobile phones by children," it said recently.

Clark believes we need to put any potential risks associated with mobile phones into perspective. "When my children were growing up, mobile phone use was the last thing I worried about," he says. "I was much more concerned about issues such as smoking or bullying. Radio waves have been around for over 100 years and they haven’t harmed anyone at these levels. A much greater electromagnetic field comes from the starter motor of your car when you start up the engine. But thousands of people, including children, haven’t been exposed to RF radiation in this way before and, in post-BSE Britain, no scientist is going to say it is absolutely safe. We can’t say there is zero risk."

The real problem is that the research is still in its infancy. Last month a new facility was opened at the University of Essex to research the side-effects of both mobile masts and phones, including emissions from transmitters using the latest 3G technology. Dr Stacey Eltiti, senior research officer on the project, says it is too early to say anything definitive yet. "If parents are worried about children’s mobile phone use, they should limit their calls and chose a handset with a low SAR rating," she says.

Clark points out that since the Stewart report almost five years ago, there has been little evidence of problems with mobile phones.

"So far so good, but it’s still early days," he says. "The acoustic neuromas uncovered by the Stockholm study is the only thing to date. That was a good study by reputable epidemiologists and so people are looking at that study very carefully.

"However, if there were going to be a serious risk, I think we would have seen it by now. Radio waves and X-rays were discovered within six months of each other. Within a year doctors and nurses were dying because of their exposure to X-rays. But there was no problem with radio waves and that was the 1890s. The uncertainty about mobile phone use surrounds the fact that we are holding these transmitters close to our brain."

Rogers urges caution. "I’ve been a very heavy mobile phone user and I’ve worked in the industry and I think this is a real issue," he says. "People just aren’t aware of it yet. The industry itself is trying to do something about it. I have sympathy for the manufacturers. They are providing something that everyone wants which makes life much easier. But we just don’t know what is going to happen in 20 years time."

As for Amy Scott, her mother Caroline says she is still too young for a phone. "The peer pressure is difficult, but she doesn’t need one at this stage." But thousands of other children will find the latest mobile phone technology in their stockings on 25 December.

Gone are the days of All I Want For Christmas is My Two Front Teeth. All these kids want for Christmas is the new Bluetooth.

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