U TXTing 2 me?

The joys and perils of mobile phone use: a report on the live spiked/O2 debate on young people and their mobiles.

Emily Hill

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Topics Science & Tech

The joys and perils of the way young people use mobile phones to interact with one another was the central theme of last Wednesday’s seminar ‘U txting 2 me?: Young people, mobiles and social networking’, organised by spiked and the mobile services operator O2 at London’s Commonwealth Club.

Science writer Timandra Harkness chaired the heavily oversubscribed event, and set a vigorous debate in motion amongst the audience, which included industry representatives, policymakers, academics and spiked readers.

Mike Short, vice president of research and development at O2, kick-started the evening with a short introduction on why O2 chose to sponsor the debate. ‘We feel that this is a very important area to debate,’ he explained, ‘because when it comes to children and their use of mobile phones and the internet, we want to discuss [the issues] up front, and in a very open way’. Taking us through what O2 has done historically, and what the company proposes to do in the future in terms of regulation, Short concluded, ‘as we move from a verbal to a visual world, new challenges are emerging’ but by taking advice from the experts, O2 hopes to keep pace with the ‘proliferation of innovation’ and help keep parents informed and kids safe.

John Carr, chair of the UK’s Children’s Charities Coalition on Internet Safety, then flagged up some of the specific risks attendant on this new wave of innovation. Carr outlined how mobiles have become integral to a young person’s sense of self, but also how ignorant their parents are of the elements of technology, which their children are engaging in. For instance, while a third of children now regularly blog, only one per cent of their parents know what the term means. Citing the ways in which mobile phones can be used in surveillance, whether during a 999 emergency or in a ‘Teddyfone’ listening device in their child’s knapsack, Carr predicted a worrying trend towards a loss of privacy. He concluded that, although children are ‘undoubted masters of the universe’ when it comes to new technology, ‘what they lack is worldly wisdom’ and this is why we need to better educate their parents on the ‘possible harms and potential risks.’

Jennie Bristow, however, advocated a less neurotic approach to children’s use of new technology. As a freelance writer (and mum of two), she suggested that mobile phones are ‘part of us and what we do’ and that the ‘dynamic of “fear first” and the rush to discuss and regulate, in a fruitless attempt to make any dangers go away’ prevents us from appreciating the positive aspects of new technology and maximising on the opportunities it affords to children. At a time when children seem to have ‘much less freedom to interact spontaneously’, and when even their ‘play is structured and supervised’, new technology can open up ‘new friendships and networks’. The pitfalls and dangers, Bristow concluded, were for children and parents to work out for themselves – without the interference of a regulator. Indeed, Bristow concluded, the multi-agency approach advocated by Short and Carr ‘seeks to make the “dangers” of new technology its defining features’.

The issues raised were then thrown out to the floor. Sarah McVittie, of 82ASK, highlighted how children are using mobile phones for sexual health and relationship advice – thus tackling embarrassing issues head on. Will Gardner of Childnet highlighted once again how parents are not aware of what their children’s phones can do, to which John Carr added that mobile phones could now be used as a form of electronic graffiti, spreading malicious slanders further than previously possible.

Alan Meyer of Mast Action UK, recommended that simpler leaflets be produced so that parents, who are self confessed ‘idiots’ when it comes to technology, can understand the technology their kids operate with ease. But a nurse in the audience, who claimed to have had a great deal of interaction with the child protection ‘industry’ agreed with Jennie that we are ‘overly concerned’ on this issue and that we are projecting adult fears onto children and that we should just ‘relax’.

Dr Ruth Rettie of the University of Sussex, who had just completed a PhD on mobiles, argued that many parents praise mobiles, explaining that in the era of fractured families, absentee fathers can maintain 24/7 contact with their children through texts. Rax Lakhani, of Catalysis concluded that we must maintain a balanced attitude to mobiles: yes, mobiles allow kids to record a ‘happy slapping’ incident, but they can also allow kids to download the latest instalment of Harry Potter on the bus on the way home.

Figuring out the pros and cons of how we – and our children – use mobile phones will be an ongoing process. Based on the lively discussion at the Commonwealth Club, this is one debate that can and should continue.

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

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Topics Science & Tech

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