How young can you get?

Selling mobiles to kids
No self-respecting teenager would be without their mobile phone these days. But a million children under the age of 10 have a mobile phone, and they are becoming common among urban eight-year-olds. Sowhat are the issues – and what are the implications for the industry?

Why do young kids want phones in the first place? For some it’s a follow-on from toddlerhood, when many will have had an oversized plastic fake phone in their cots; it’s a toy with activity elements – buttons to press, sounds to hear, actions to perform.

And as they grow older there’s the impetus to imitative aspirational behaviour. Young children naturally copy what older kids and adults are doing; that’s one way they learn. In past times such activities might have included make-believe baking or gardening. Today, the playtime list also features mobile phones.
Then there’s the equally natural attraction of a problem to solve. Somewhere in that phone is a selection of ringtones, games to play, text-message templates and emoticons – the kind of thing that many adults never realise they have. Finding and using them is entertaining, provides a sense of achievement, and feeds into the burgeoning desire to express an individual personality.

And finally, even pre-teens like to keep in touch with their friends. Their spelling may not be up to much, but SMS messaging doesn’t require traditional language skills; it’s much more accessible, and because most adults aren’t confident with text language the phone represents a badge of group membership – a young mobile user is one of us, not one of them.

This is what Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, had to say on the subject: “Mobiles are perceived by pre-adolescents as a symbol of adolescence and so become particularly important to children making the transition from primary to secondary school. At this point the impact of peer culture factors significantly and you need your mobile, not so much to contact people, but to let your mates know that you’re around, available and sought after. It’s a twenty-first century variant on traditional ‘hanging out’.

“‘Cool’ is everything, and one of the key attractions is the potential for personalisation – ring-tones, wall-paper and snazzy little covers. All of this becomes part of a youngster’s statement about who they are and who they want to be.”

Who pay’s
Now, very few pre-teens are going to be paying for a phone out of their own pocket. If you ask the parent why they have stumped up, all claim the phone is for use in emergencies – the adult gets delayed on the school pickup run, the child gets lost or worried (or worse). We like to think that a mobile phone lets us maintain contact with our kids without being there in person to keep hold of their hand; it’s a high-tech extension of reins for toddlers.

There may be something in that. There’s certainly a sense of security in providing a phone: even if you can’t be there, the phone will be – it’s a way of extending supervision of our offspring. It also represents a small degree of independence for the child, a step along the road that ten years later might result in them leaving home to make their own way in the world.

So there’s a lot of emotional and sociological back-story to that phone. In practice of course pester power also counts for a lot. It’s often hard to deny the kid the badge of membership that takes them into the young-adult club. And many children learn to manipulate our anxieties: they tell you it’s a matter of security, they know it’s a way of breaking free.

That’s why parents get so many diverts to the mailbox. Kids learn quickly that when they don’t want us to know what they are doing, or where they are, they can switch off the phone.

Risks and problems
But should kids carry phones anyhow? And what’s the retailer’s responsibility here?
For a start, parents and sellers should recognise that it’s natural, even desirable, for kids to want a bit of freedom. Exactly how much freedom they get is up to the parent – and for some, it will extend to a prepay mobile.

And the security argument is valid. But it must be supported by ground rules: the child must be taught to leave that phone switched on, or at least to check regularly for messages.
Against that, there are some very real risks that everyone should appreciate. As the charity Childnet International outs it: “These very features and facilities that make mobile phones particularly attractive to young users also offer the potential for misuse that could put children at risk. The challenge is to ensure that the positive aspects for children far outweigh the potential negatives, and that those who stand to benefit most are empowered to do so.”

There’s a lot of dodgy stuff out there. At one end of the spectrum is the possibility for distributing offensive or pornographic images and video. The cameras in most phones open some alarming possibilities about how such images might be created in the first place.

There’s no substantial evidence for porn reaching kids, though recent journalistic endeavours have demonstrated that it is possible for a child to sign up for raunchy content – which may well be perfectly legal for adults, but not for children.

The same applies to other sites such as mobile gambling. And even if the youngster isn’t going to be damaged by content, there’s the cost issue – is it responsible to allow a child to run up a large bill for premium-price services?

The use of mobiles for unsolicited respond-immediately texts and viral marketing can be very powerful tools for a retailer. With prepay phones it is difficult to establish the age of the consumer. Possession of a credit card is usually taken as a reasonable age verification, though it’s well nigh impossible to confirm that the would-be customer hasn’t ‘borrowed’ an adult’s card details.

The mobile phone is an ideal way of establishing one-to-one contact with children for the purposes of sexual or commercial exploitation – away from parents in physical and the emotional terms. Mobile chat and dating services provide opportunities to make inappropriate or dangerous contact with young users.
Mobile-phone bullying is another nasty development, made even more pernicious because of the technology. It extends the reach of the bully from the playground into the victim’s bedroom.

Kids are increasingly being targeted by conventional advertising media such as magazines and television. Mobiles provide the advertiser with an attractive extra – the opportunity for an immediate response, which may be a purchase or to provide personal information.
Children often don’t understand the implications of this. Most of the people who sign up for subscription-based ringtone downloads are teenagers. At least there are now guidelines and enforceable codes of conduct for companies developing and promoting mobile phone services for children.

It’s become commonplace to read about kids having their phone stolen. They are small, portable, easily snatched; the resale value may be relatively low, but to a youngster even a few quid counts.
And it can be dangerous to have one of the more desirable phones. Not only are they more resalable, there’s often a spurious issue of ‘respect’ at work here – the thief thinks the victim doesn’t deserve to have a better phone than they do.

Location tracking
This one is difficult. A number of commercial personal tracking services have been developed that allow the user to register a handset which can subsequently be located just about anywhere in the country. They work with most networks (not 3 or Virgin Mobile) and the precision varies; in a city with a lot of masts it is possible to pinpoint a location down to 100m or less, in rural areas, it’s likely to be much cruder – maybe within 2km.

The attraction is obvious: provided the child’s mobile is switched on, a parent can request a location at any time without actually having to call or send a text. The potential drawback is equally obvious: the child doesn’t know that someone is tracing them, so it’s theoretically possible for a stalker or a pervert to do just that. They’d need access to the child’s phone in order to respond to and then delete the ‘ok to track you?’ message, but that might be easy enough to engineer.

To counter some of the fears, a code of practice has been drawn up by the five British mobile networks in conjunction with the Home Office, police and children’s charities. The key element is the assurance that the phone being tracked will receive regular text messages reminding the user that he or she can be traced.

The guidelines govern the way in which companies can use the information that the mobile operators have to collect in order to place calls. They specify the (checkable) information that parents must disclose in order track a child’s phone – primarily home address and credit card details. Users would also be able to opt out of the service.

Some people want to go further and implement formal regulation. A number of journalists have tested the code by trying to sign up for location-tracking services, and in at least a couple of cases there was no attempt to verify the age of the person being tracked (the code recommends 16 as the cut-off point). And while frequent follow-up text messages are supposed to remind the individual that they are being tracked, the frequency of those messages varies widely.

Judy Mallaber, the Labour MP for Derbyshire’s Amber Valley, has asked parliament to consider licensing of child location services; “We are sleepwalking into a world where a jealous partner or obsessed stalker can spy on you just by getting your phone number,” she said.
John Carr, New Technology Adviser at the children’s charity NCH, certainly supports the Judy Mallaber’s Ten Minute Rule Bill: “We cannot afford to take any chances with information which might affect the safety of children”.

Mobile games “not all bad” shock
The University of Bradford is halfway through a two-year EC-funded project to help encourage young people to take up science and technology as part of the GRID project. GRID aims to improve science teaching within schools and to foster the interest of pupils in the subject; Bradford’s main contributions include mobile content development.

The aim is to develop a set of educational games to teach science using mobile devices. “Games are a rich mode of interaction that can hone important skills in the player – such as strategic thinking and planning, hand eye co-ordination, literacy, numeracy, problem solving and sequencing, as well as providing the interest and motivation to learn” said Bradford project leader, Prof Peter Excell
“Mobile technologies have already become very widespread amongst children and young people. These technologies are generally deemed as a distraction in children’s lives, moving their attention away from educational content and on to activities that are commonly seen as irrelevant to their personal development … We are looking at educating through this perceived distraction.”

Location Tracking Services
A number of mobile-phone tracking services are available, some aimed at corporate users but many targeted at parents.

ChildLocate: £69.95 per year includes 5 handsets and 25 pings, extra pings from £4.95 for 33

Find Your Child: £5.99 pack includes one year’s subscription, one handset, 4 pings; 3 text messages

Follow Us: Pay-as-you-go (free registration) at £1.25 per mobile and 25p per ping (or starter pack at £14.99 – unlimited handsets, includes 50 pings)

KidsOK: £39.95 pack includes one year’s subscription, three handsets (parents’ or children’s) and 10 pings; extra pings £9.95 for 20 www.kidsok.netlTrace A Mobile: £5 per month (min six months) includes five handsets and 10 pings, extra pings from £10.50 for 30
Currently these can locate mobiles on Vodafone, O2, T-Mobile, Orange, Tesco Mobile, BT Mobile, Fresh and Easy Mobile – but not Virgin Mobile or 3.
3 says it doesn’t give out location information to third parties “so that sort of service wouldn’t work with us” (calculating a location depends on knowing where the masts are).

Virgin Mobile told us it chooses not to support location-based services for now. “We feel that such services could still be open to abuse and misuse, and until we feel that they have sufficient safeguards to protect the security of our customers we are choosing not to enable such services on our network.”
Everyone has a part to play in ensuring that children get the most out of mobiles – meaning that they get the benefits, including the intangibles about independence and peer groups, but at the same time they are well protected from the risks.
To be fair, most of the industry players understand most of what they have to do:


  • Encourage self-regulation for the various sectors of the mobile industry
  • Develop international standards for classifying content and developing consistent law enforcement strategies
  • Give the police sufficient training and resources to respond to illegal use of mobile phones


  • Agree industry-wide standards about treating children as customers and consumers
  • Establish age verification procedures
  • Ensure that advertising is appropriate for the target market
  • Enforce content classifications and associated age-verified opt-in subscriptions
  • Provide or support awareness material, frequent reminders and hotlines
  • Provide tools for blocking and filtering content.




Product developers and content providers

  • Classify all content as to its suitability for children
  • Subscribe to agreed industry codes of conduct to ensure that age-restricted content is made available only on an opt-in subscription basis to those customers whose age has been verified


  • Provide information, advice and awareness materials at the point of sale
  • Encourage parents to set down sensible ground rules for their children’s use of mobiles
  • Encourage buyers to register with the police’s Immobilise property register (

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