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Opinion Giving a child a mobile phone is no different from handing out cyanide pills, according to a leading UK academic.

This was one of the bizarre claims made in an article on whether or not schoolchildren should be given lessons on mobile phone safety, featured in the Kingston Borough Guardian.

The remark was made by Prof Gerald Hyland, of the University of Warwick, who hit the headlines last June when he raised concerns about phone transmission masts being sited near schools. While no one would doubt the good Prof's pedigree, his recent outburst is certainly open to debate.

"It is totally irresponsible for parents to let their children have mobiles. It is the equivalent of giving the child a cyanide pill," he said.

While many people have expressed fears over the links between the use of mobile phones and a variety of ailments, no one has proved beyond doubt that mobile phones are harmful, never mind potentially deadly.

The same cannot be said about cyanide.

Prof Hyland's remark is made all the more interesting when we look back at his ban phone masts from schools call last June. Back then, The Register reported Prof Hyland admitting there was no evidence to back up his claims, yet he was still calling for an outright ban on siting phone masts near schools.

Rather an extreme stance for a man of science (he's a physicist) who you'd expect to find sticking faithfully to facts and evidence. Prof Hyland talks about parents being irresponsible, yet he seems to have abdicated himself from all responsibility when speaking out as a leading academic in this field.

Only an idiot - or maybe the chief exec of a mobile phone company - would not want to see more research carried out into the possibility that prolonged use of mobiles can provoke the onset of cancer - which has been one of the most common concerns. But to liken a phone to a cyanide pill reduces the argument to the trite and trivial.

Luddites and technophobes everywhere are more than happy to sound off on the subject of giving mobile phones to children. But far from just being a fashion accessory -- although that does come into it -- many parents give their kids a phone in the hope it will actually keep them safe.

Some 300,000 mobile phones were bought for use by children in the UK in the run-up to Christmas '99. Parents hope a child with a phone will be less likely to be abducted on the way home from school, or visiting their friends, or wherever. Now, while the statistical likelihood of your child being abducted is probably no greater today than it was 20 years ago, this is a topic which has a grip on the parental psyche, due in part to the lurid detail with which tales of abducted children are covered by some newspapers.

So, what do concerned parents do -- they get mobiles for their kids. Will this really keep them any safer than their phoneless peers? Who can say. If it means your teenage daughter can ring you at 11pm to ask you to collect her rather than her having to walk home alone, then maybe.

But what about the possible health risks? Parents will continue to fret over the welfare of their children, just as they always have. We can assume that most people will have had some contact with mobiles give you cancer stories, and the fact that more than a quarter of a million UK youngsters got a mobile last Christmas gives some indication of where parents' priorities lie. Not that they don't care about the little darlings' health, they're just more bothered about other stuff.

Of course, they could be wrong - 'pay as you talk' could become 'fry as you walk'. So in the meantime those lessons on safe use of mobiles could be a wise move.

What's needed is a properly funded and coordinated research programme that will examine the possible links between phone usage and ill-health. For this to happen the network operators and the handset manufacturers will have to take the lead. But it will also need the wider support of government bodies and academics like Prof Hyland. Which means taking the emphasis off talk of the Boogie Man and sticking to some cold hard facts. ®

If you have any comments on the mobile phone health scare debate, why not have your say on The Register Bulletin Board.

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