Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Safety in numbers
Anna Smyth

In the Eighties, you had to have a 10p piece. In the Nineties, it was all about BT Chargecards that only let you phone one number. But in the Noughties, a child’s lifeline to home comes in the form of a mobile phone.

This week a survey revealed that one in four primary school children has their own mobile. The number has almost doubled since 2001, as parents push aside scares about radiation and brain cancer in the name of keeping their child safe by staying in contact.

There are those who believe this signals the end of the English language as we know it. The current generation of twentysomethings is said to be struggling to remember the point of vowels, as text speak establishes itself as the only conversational tool. If the next generation are sucked into the vortex before they reach ten, we will have a nation of Dom Joly caricatures before we know it.

But mobiles have their uses. They have proved vital in several emergencies involving children in recent times. Two years ago, a couple of East Lothian girls intervened at a beach when a woman collapsed in the water. They used their mobiles to call the police, and kept the woman warm until help arrived and she could be taken to hospital. The emergency services said that the girls’ quick response - facilitated by the mobile - saved the woman’s life. The two friends have been awarded a Certificate of Commendation by the Royal Humane Society for their efforts.

A couple of years earlier, an 11-year-old girl was able to summon help with her mobile when she broke her ankle on an East Lothian hill. She had been out walking with friends when she slipped and injured herself, but after contacting the emergency services she was airlifted to hospital in Edinburgh.

Many parents are now giving their young children mobile phones as a safety precaution. Niki MacDonald is one mother who followed the trend so that her ten-year-old son, Jordan, could enjoy more freedom.

"We gave him a phone last year for his birthday because I was worried about him going out alone," says the 30-year-old childminder.

"There aren’t any children of his age around our house, so he goes down the road to play with some boys there. He had been borrowing his dad’s phone for the walk, so we thought it was better to get him his own one.

"I do feel much happier knowing that he can always phone me. Since he’s had the phone he has been very good at keeping in touch, always calling if he is going to be late home. If he wants to play football with some friends after school he can do that now, because he just gives me a quick call. It saves me worrying that something has happened to him on the way home."

This, of course, makes perfect sense. But some experts have queried whether the mobile is really as helpful as parents like to imagine. Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University, and author of Paranoid Parenting, which examines how parents have become progressively more mollycoddling of their children. He argues that although mobiles do have a practical use in communicating a child’s whereabouts, it is dangerous to think they offer anything more than this.

"Parents have this idea that by giving their child a mobile phone they will somehow make them more safe," he says. "That is just an illusion. The only thing it does is give the parent more reassurance. It has absolutely no impact on the child’s safety in real terms."

Furedi’s view is tragically supported by the Soham murder case. The search for Holly and Jessica may have been helped because of their mobile phone records, but having the phone in the first place did nothing to save them from their killer.

"I do have concerns that phones may in fact compound the problem of child safety, as they distract attention from the real issues," says Furedi. "The more you look for technological solutions to social problems, the more you become pre-occupied with the wrong things. Parents start thinking that a more expensive phone that can track their child’s whereabouts will give them more protection. It distracts them from working out sensible strategies for training their child to be responsible, vigilant and communicative.

"I would rather parents spent more time developing the flow of communication with their child than on the technological methods for keeping in touch."

First published in the Scotsman, 29 April 2004