Mobile phones and child protection

How far should we go? Report on the spiked/O2 seminar.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Science & Tech

On 1 March 2006, spiked and the mobile services provider O2 hosted a seminar to discuss the question ‘Mobile phones and child protection: How far should we go?’ at the Commonwealth Club in central London. The seminar accompanied our ongoing online debate on this issue (taking place here), and drew an audience of over 50 people from sectors including children’s charities, mobile operators, policymakers, academics and the interested public. With the seminar having provoked lengthy coverage on Sky News that day, attendees and speakers came prepared to have as full a debate as possible.

A panel of four speakers kicked off the discussion with their opening remarks. Will Gardner, from the internet safety organisation Childnet International, emphasised the speed and complexity with which mobile technology has developed. Many of the risks faced by children using their mobile phones, he argued, are similar to those they face when using the internet. Gardner broadly summarised these risks as the ‘Three Cs’ – contact (the potential for paedophiles ‘grooming’ children online), content (the potential that children will come into contact with illegal or harmful material such as pornography), and commerce (the risk that children will be lured into spending too much money, or buying unsuitable goods).

The mobile environment poses the same risks as the online environment, said Gardner – but is exacerbated by the fact that the mobile phone device is more personal, is ‘always on’. He quoted one teenage girl’s explanation of exactly what her phone means to her: ‘Take away my phone, and you take away a part of me.’ Gardner stressed the need for a multi-agency approach to regulation, involving operators, policymakers, parents and all other parties involved in providing or regulating mobile phone usage, and argued that any code of conduct will need to keep pace with the technology: children, he said, should not be the ‘canary in the coalmine’ when it came to identifying and dealing with problems. ‘How far should we go?’ he asked. ‘As far as we need to.’

John Carr, chairman of the UK’s Children’s Charities’ Coalition on Internet Safety and associate director of NCH’s Children and Technology Unit, referred to a national survey by the children’s charity NCH that found that significant numbers of children have been bullied or otherwise intimidated via mobile phones – for example through text bullying or ‘happy slapping’. What makes issues such as text bullying distinct from the more timeless, everyday forms of playground bullying is, he argued, that home fails to provide a sanctuary in the same way – children can escape the playground bullies by retreating to their bedrooms at the end of the day, but they take their mobiles everywhere with them and are always accessible to unwanted calls or texts.

Carr raised the problem that it is very difficult to conduct a discussion on this subject rationally – it’s too emotive, he said, and besides, ‘who said parents had to be rational anyway?’. He pointed to the questions surrounding mobiles and children’s health, which are ‘not yet resolved’. And he criticised the mobile phone networks for making a ‘strategic error’ in allowing personal location services to be rolled out in a commercial context. In terms of solutions, he suggested, industry self-regulation is flawed as such a notion ‘depends on an equality of strength and knowledge between state, market and consumer, and this doesn’t exist with mobiles and child protection’.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Paranoid Parenting, was deeply critical of those he called the ‘moral entrepreneurs’ of the child protection industry. ‘It’s the sociological view of children that determines this discussion, not any new risks posed by the technology’, he argued, claiming that if the yo-yo were introduced today we would be exposed to similar concerns about the yo-yo’s potential risks. Many of the ‘remarkable’ things children do with their phones give them a much-needed opportunity to conduct the peer relationships that our safety-first culture prevents them from conducting outdoors.

The notion that increased regulation of children’s mobile usage is desirable or even possible, argued Furedi, misses one key point: that children’s desire to use phones is in the first place motivated by an aspiration to adulthood, and that children’s development depends upon them kicking against adult authority and circumventing the very rules designed to keep them safe. ‘We’re robbing them of this, and diminishing their creative experience, by suggesting that we keep them on digital leashes’, he said. The ‘busybodies’ in the child protection movement, he warned, are in the business of scaring parents and short-circuiting the process whereby they socialise their children, and this has destructive consequences.

Mike Short, VP of R&D at O2, began his introductory remarks with a question: ‘What is a mobile phone?’ New technologies have always attracted controversy, he said, and ‘we don’t want a culture of fear – we want to balance concerns and benefits appropriately’. There are various options available to parents and children, he said, and ‘a debate needs to be had about what forms are appropriate’. In this respect, said Short, the spiked/O2 online debate has provided some useful views and suggestions. Others will come from teenagers themselves, who often have their own ideas about what they want and don’t want from mobile phones and those who regulate them – a point that Short illustrated with some quotes from his son.

An impassioned debate followed. Jonathan Picken from the British Association for the Study and Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (BASPCAN) cautioned that, for the first time, a generation of children can access entirely uncensored material. ‘We have to think about vulnerable children, not privileged children’, he said. Frank Furedi countered that he agreed that the proliferation of horrific imagery was a concern, ‘but I think it’s essential that dealing with this be seen as a parenting issue, not a technology issue’.

‘I know a child who refused to have a mobile phone – that was her method of rebellion’, said Lori Camm, from Magic Lantern Productions. Graham Barnfield from the University of East London drew attention to the way in which much imagery on mainstream TV mimics the grainy quality popularised by ‘happy slapping’ images, to argue that this kind of footage is ‘endorsed from the top down’.
Richard Brown of UKNetMonitor drew an analogy with the ongoing debate about childhood obesity, and wondered how parents could become equal in knowledge to others in the mobile phone discussion. Hamish MacLeod of the Mobile Broadband Group addressed the tension that arises from people having bought mobiles voluntarily.

Norman Lloyd of Crime Concern flagged up the need for imaginative schemes for dealing with phone-related problems. John Adams from University College London discussed the issue of mobile contact in ‘a sad world’, in which mobile technology is contributing to a more general sense of atomisation. Mick Hume, editor of spiked and columnist for The Times (London), asked of John Carr: ‘Who do you think you are?’ Representatives of the child protection debate, he argued, have not been elected to speak on behalf of all parents – who have many different views about mobile phones and how their children should use them. The often-cited claim that something must be done on behalf of the vulnerable child is ‘a blank cheque’ for bans and regulation, and as such should be challenged.

The speakers concluded with a closing remark of one minute each. Mike Short pointed to the ways in which O2 collaborates with regulators in seeking the best solutions to these problems. Picking up on John Adams’ point, Frank Furedi said that it might be a ‘sad world’ – but limiting people’s contact further through restricting the use of mobiles would make people even more isolated. John Carr argued that, while children clearly do break the rules, rules protecting children are important nonetheless. The key issue is balance, said Will Gardner – safety, not a culture of fear.

The discussion went on at a wine reception following the seminar, and will continue online over the following days. Go to to join the debate.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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