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The European Commission is investigating the harm that mobile phones do to children.

A public consultation began yesterday that will look at protecting minors who use mobiles against inappropriate content, expense, bullying and sexual predators.

Almost three-quarters of 12 to 13 year olds own a mobile phone, according to the commission, which launched the consultation as part of its Safer Internet Forum for child welfare.

"The growth in mobile use clearly helps people link up in an information society," a commission statement said. "But it also gives rise to concerns about the safety of children."

The dangers to which children can be exposed include: grooming, whereby sexual predators make friends via phones with children; privacy violation; and unexpectedly high expense from phone use. Modern mobile internet access technologies can also expose children to harmful and illegal internet content, the commission said.

"Mobile phones are part of our daily lives, not only for adults but also for teenagers and increasingly for younger children," said Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Information Society and Media. "Mobile communication is a great opportunity for the development of Europe's economies and societies. However, at the same time, the protection of minors needs to be guaranteed."

Another danger of mobiles, said the commission, is that of bullying through the distribution of abusive or compromising messages and photos among children. The UK government has just announced an expansion of school guidelines to cover cyber-bullying, including the use of mobile phones to bully children.

"Unlike other forms of bullying, cyber bullying can follow children and young people into their private spaces and outside school hours," said schools minister Jim Knight. "This is why it is essential that parents and young people themselves should understand how to use technologies safely to protect themselves at home and outside school hours, as well as supporting their schools in dealing with incidents.

"The education bill will give teachers a legal right to discipline pupils, strengthening their authority to take firm action on bullying. It will also send a strong message to parents and pupils that bullying will not be tolerated with court-imposed parenting orders to compel parents of bullies to attend parenting classes or face £1,000 fines."

The commission found that in May of this year 70 per cent of European children aged 12 to 13 had mobile phones, while 23 per cent of children aged eight to nine owned mobiles.

The commission will investigate what regulatory action is needed to protect children in a move which will be closely watched by network operators. "The more efficient self-regulation can become, the less the need for state intervention," Reding said.

The consultation does not explore the health risks of mobile usage. In January 2005, the UK's National Radiological Protection Board published a report suggesting that children would be especially vulnerable to any health risks that may exist in mobile phone use because their nervous systems are still developing.

In January 2006, a study published in the British Medical Journal cast doubt on concerns that mobile phone use increases the risk of brain tumours.

Copyright © 2006, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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