A child's lifeline . . or the direct line to danger?
FOR years, parents have been buying their children mobile phones in the hope that they will help keep them safe.
New figures have revealed one in four primary school children aged between seven and ten now own a mobile phone - almost double the number three years ago.
And while the youngsters themselves are probably more interested in the latest ringtones and games, their mums and dads have justified the cost with the thought that, with a mobile, their child can call for help in emergencies and it will be easier to keep tabs on them from day to day.
But the latest type of mobile phone has changed all that.
Third generation, or 3G, mobiles, which most firms are planning to launch later this year, give users unprecedented access to the internet, allowing them to download material such as music and film, and send and receive video clips and pictures.
The mobile phone industry, which has invested billions in the new devices, is hyping them as the latest must-have gadgets, and claims it will be able to police their use properly through its voluntary code of conduct. But parents are worried that, far from safeguarding their children, the latest mobiles will put youngsters at serious risk of harm and abuse.
A new survey out today reveals that nearly three out of four parents believe their children could be endangered by 3G phones, with almost four out of five fearing that the technology would "make it more or less impossible to supervise and support children who use the internet".
They are anxious that their children could access inappropriate sites such as those of an adult nature or ones that encourage gambling. More frightening still is the concern, shared by professionals, that paedophiles could use the new phones to "groom" children for abuse over the net. And while they are pricey - Nokia, the world’s leading mobile handset maker, has advertised 3G handsets ranging from 120 to 270 - pester power is bound to see many mums and dads give in.
So are those parents right to be afraid? Will children be more at risk when many firms’ 3G phones hit the streets later this year?
Tina Woolnough, of Craigleith View, Ravelston Dykes, chairs Edinburgh pressure group Parents in Partnership and has three young children, Felix, aged five, Astrid, eight, and Ingrid, ten. She says: "I really don’t know how they are going to supervise or police this technology even if they put blocks on, as there are all these hidden pages on seemingly innocuous websites.
"Mobile phones can’t be policed by adults. Children love doing things which their parents don’t know about, they want to get past these controls, so they will be telling each other about these sites as well. It is very subversive and very concerning.
"None of my children have mobiles at the moment, although we are thinking about it for our eldest, because as well as the risks, mobiles help keep children safe and in regular contact with their parents.
"It is very scary, though, because even if you don’t give your child a mobile, their friend may have one and let them use it."
She adds: "New technologies are a moving target for parents to deal with. There seems to be little guidance for parents as to how they can help their children to keep themselves safe.
"We have yet to see any evidence that people can put checks in place. I don’t know what they should do, apart from educating children about the dangers."
Her fears are echoed by Edinburgh-based children’s charity Children 1st. Jane Jarvie, communication manager, says: "Mobile phones and the internet can both have great benefits for young people. However, new technology can also be used to put children and young people at the risk of harm. We all know this, for example, from the number of people brought to trial for downloading pornographic images of children, or from Microsoft’s decision last year to close its chatroom service in the UK on account of some adults using the internet’s anonymity to groom young people.
"Keeping children safe is everyone’s responsibility. Even if there is a market for mobile phones that provide access to the internet, social responsibility demands that the companies selling these phones consider the interests of children."
Today’s survey was commissioned by children’s charity NCH. It follows a hard-hitting campaign launched earlier this year by fellow children’s charity Barnardo’s, highlighting the growing number of increasingly younger children suffering violent assaults whose torture is broadcast around the world via the internet and mobile phones.
Barnardo’s report, Just One Click, revealed the shocking way in which the internet and mobile phone technology provide dangerous new tools for those who abuse children. NCH’s internet adviser, John Carr, explains the significance of today’s report: "NCH believes this throws down a major challenge to the mobile phone operators.
"If they want these phones to take off in the youth market, they are going to have to convince a lot of parents that they are safe, or can be made safe."
And he says: "At the moment, if a child goes on to the internet it is almost bound to be through a computer which will be in their home or classroom, so there is always the potential for an adult to be on hand if the child gets into difficulties, for example if they are speaking to someone in a chatroom and become worried."
He adds: "Accessing the internet through a phone means that children can be going online anywhere - in the street, on the school bus, in the park - so that potential for a responsible adult to be there does not exist. Parents are concerned that mobile phone companies get that message; this survey highlights that.
"The companies have said that they fully accept and understand the concerns, but we have not seen the small print yet [of the code of conduct] and we don’t know if it is going to work in practice.
"The firms will have to convince families that it will, as it is mums and dads who will be buying these phones."
NCH is calling for every 3G handset used by under-18s to have filtering and screening software pre-installed, so users cannot access porn and other adult services.
For the mobile phone industry, 3G is big business. The key players have already paid 21 billion up front for 3G licences from the Government, and need to do everything they can to encourage the
public to buy the handsets, which are expensive in comparison with older models.
And the industry is at pains to point out that it is taking parents’ concerns very seriously, bringing in a range of measures to ensure that children are safe.
While issues such as the cost of calls are regulated by communications watchdog Ofcom, it has no remit for regulating mobile phone content.
As a result, in January, the six UK mobile phone operators - Orange, O2, T-Mobile, Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and 3 - announced a joint voluntary code of practice for self-regulation of the new mobile phones.
It aims to give parents the confidence to understand new mobile devices; the power to influence the type of content that their children can access; and the knowledge to show their children how to use new services responsibly.
A statement from Orange outlining the code reads: "All commercial content unsuitable for customers under 18 will be classified 18.
"Such content will not be made available to customers until the networks, through a process of age verification, are satisfied that he or she is at least 18.
Chatrooms made available to customers under 18 will be moderated [ie monitored to guard against inappropriate use].
"Parents and carers will be able to apply filters to the mobile operator’s internet access service so that the internet content thus accessible is restricted.
"Mobile operators will work with law enforcement agencies to deal with the reporting of content that may break the criminal law.
"Mobile operators will also combat bulk and nuisance communications."
While some 3G phones are already on sale, most operators are launching them later this year. An Orange spokesman says that details of exactly how the phones
will be policed "have not been finalised yet".
A spokeswoman for Vodafone says: "We will have content control and access control in place so that when we start offering these services, people will have to opt in to be able to access adult content. So, by default, every phone will be barred.
"People would need to prove how old they were to opt in, either in person with ID, or by using a credit card to pay - not many under-18s have credit cards."
In response to concerns that hidden pages will slip through the net, the spokeswoman adds: "We are employing sophisticated software which essentially filters pages on websites. If there are any pages we are not sure about, they will be manually looked at. We are confident in this software.
"We are certainly aware of customer concerns and we know that, while we don’t let anyone access anything on our own sites that is of an adult nature, with existing picture phones you can already do all sorts of things. The introduction of 3G phones has perhaps intensified the debate. Clearly, it is a concern, but hopefully our content and access controls will go a long way to addressing those concerns."
She adds: "We will do as much as we can to educate parents and children about the risks."
But Judith Gillespie, of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, had a simple answer for worried parents. "If parents are so scared about these phones, the answer is simple - don’t buy them for your children.
"The biggest risk to children is road traffic accidents. The risk from these phones is purely hypothetical."
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: West
Temperature: 11 C to 19 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North