No matter what the cause of the tantrum, no matter how bored or frustrated he is, the one item that is guaranteed to distract my toddler is a mobile phone. From the youngest age, he’s been fascinated by the lights and sounds – and the fact that he can control them by pressing buttons. If he gets his little hands on a mobile phone, he’ll happily babble away to whoever he has decided is on the other end of the line or (since he worked out how to unlock the phone) flick through saved videos and pictures. By the time he was one year old, we joked that he’d be requesting a phone of his own for his second birthday. Now, as this approaches, I’ve discovered that this is not as far-fetched as it seems.
I’d accept that practically all second level students have mobile phones, but I was amazed when a parent recently told me she reckons about half of primary school kids have them too. How naïve was I?! It seems that while many of the kids have ‘adult’ phones, the market is reacting to this new demand by introducing models designed for the age group, like the candy-coloured, brightly lit Firefly Mobile, with simplified controls (only five buttons) and a restricted set of functions. This toy-like handset has an “on” switch, an “off” switch and two buttons with a male and female figure on – one calls Mammy, the other Daddy. Another button accesses a phone book that contains up to 20 numbers. The phone book is PIN-protected and so can be entered, to begin with at least, only under parental supervision. The phone cannot download internet files and can be set up to block calls from numbers that it doesn’t recognise.
And early this year, in Asia, a mobile phone for toddlers was launched. What the hell??? While my little tyke looks adorable as he jabbers into my phone having ‘imaginary’ conversations with his Nanny, nobody on the other end of the phone could possibly understand what he was uttering. Not to mention the ever-present possibility of him having a nibble on the phone, just to see what it tastes like.
However, it would seem that some parents think their toddler needs to keep up with the constant communication that goes on in our world. The Zeki, recently launched in Korea, is a “kid-use digital toy phone” that utilizes NFC (Near-Field Communications) in the same manner as a baby monitor, so that a child can have a mobile phone conversation from up to 80 metres away. There’s also an integral mp3 player and the unit can send and receive text messages. Young Toys affirms that the Zeki is made from harmless materials and is massively over-shielded to prevent even the possibility of electromagnetic waves entering a child’s head. Now I’m sure a few of you are in shock reading this, but I guarantee to you that this craze will catch on fairly rapidly on this side of the world.
Though my little man loves to imitate grown-ups, I really hate the idea of him growing up too soon. Not to mention the long-term harm that we’re not yet sure mobile phones could be wreaking on a young child’s mental and physical health: a Swedish study last year indicated that children may be five times more likely to get brain cancer if they use mobiles phones.
Other European countries are heading in the opposite direction to Britain and Ireland: the French Government introduced laws earlier this year that ban sales of mobile phones to children under 6 and prohibit advertising them to children under 12. And a report released in January by the Finnish Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority concluded that children’s use of mobile phones should be limited until the potential long-term health risks are identified.
There’s also the worry of kids being bullied by mobile phone. Just this week, four of the country’s mobile phone operators outlined to the Oireachtas what they are doing to protect children from abusive and inappropriate calls and text messages. Just one operator – O2 – has introduced a service called BlockIT to combat bullying on mobile phones, which is free of charge but, while it blocks unwanted text, pictures and video messages it cannot block voice calls. Another phone operator – 3 – will introduce a service called Kidsafe next month that is also free of charge but is capable of blocking voice calls as well as text messages. Vodafone said it hoped to launch a simple, configurable blocking tool free of charge early in the new school year while Meteor said it had a budget and a set of criteria for a similar service and was seeking tenders.
Like every parent, I want to provide my child with every opportunity in life – and know where he is at every minute of every day. So I can understand how some parents are ‘guilted’ into buying a mobile phone for their child even though they’re not altogether comfortable with the idea. But I think I’ll resist this ‘parental peer pressure’ to buy my wee man his own mobile just yet. How long I’ll be able to hold out is anyone’s guess.