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A paradox wrapped inside a conundrum

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A neatly almost-alliterative subject header in an email caught my eye recently.

Mind Candy boss explains Moshi Monsters mobile strategy

Hmmm. For those who need a translation, bear with me. For those who don't I'm guessing you already know why it set me thinking.

In the dim and distant past, 1999 to be precise, the mobile phone industry in the UK came under a lot of pressure to determine whether or to what extent there were health issues associated with the use of their products. They established the Stewart Enquiry.

The terms of reference made clear that the concerns were around

...emissions of radiofrequency radiation from the phones (the handsets) and from the base stations that receive and transmit the signals.

For the general population, the levels of exposure arising from phones held near to the head or other parts of the body are substantially greater than whole-body exposures arising from base stations.

Suggestions were being made, for example, that because the skulls of children and young people were still growing and thickening, there was a consequential danger that radiation from handsets could harm the physical development of the grey matter. Alternatively there may be a longer term risk of tumours. We were in the territory of known unknowns.

The Enquiry eventually took the view that they could neither conclusively prove nor disprove the supposed or potential hazards. For that reason Stewart suggested in the final report (p 8, recommendation 1.53)

If there are currently unrecognised adverse health effects from the use of mobile phones, children may be more vulnerable because of their developing nervous system, the greater absorption of energy in the tissues of the head (paragraph 4.37), and a longer lifetime of exposure.

In line with our precautionary approach, at this time, we believe that the widespread use of mobile phones by children for non-essential calls should be discouraged. We also recommend that the mobile phone industry should refrain from promoting the use of mobile phones by children (paragraphs 6.89 and 6.90).

All these years later, despite the ongoing lack of hard evidence of any significant ill-health effects, Stewart's conclusions continue to hold the centre ground and guide policy. Its terms are strictly observed by all the UK's mobile phone operators and virtually all handset manufacturers. With completely ridiculous consequences.

Ridiculous consequence number one. To comply with the Stewart recommendation the industry adopted a self-denying ordinance. They would not sell or promote mobile phones or services to persons under the age of 16. This has had close to zero effect.

According to a large study published by OFCOM in April, 2011, 87% of children between the ages of 12-15 year olds have used a mobile phone. This includes 35% who have smartphones. 47% of 8-11 year olds have mobiles as do 7% of all 5-7 year olds.

The same report shows (figure 3) that the most common age at which children acquire their first mobile is 9-10, with a further 32% acquiring one between the ages of 11 and 12. There are some noticeable differences between various socio-economic groups - basically children from wealthier families tend to get their phones later - but overall what is most striking is the broad similarities across the different demographics.

It is hard to imagine how, if the industry had been actively promoting mobile phones to children, they could possibly have achieved higher levels of market penetration than those they have acquired doing nothing. Doing nothing directly that is. Of course indirect influences are there, big time. But even so it's an odd business model.

The truth is willy nilly mobiles have become extensively integrated into the way modern families live. It's no longer simply a case of children demanding a mobile to maintain their cool quotient. Parents want their children to have them in order that they can stay in touch, help keep them safe, transmit messages if domestic arrangements change, and all the rest.

When Clinical Psychologist Professor Tanya Byron concluded her review in 2008 she appeared to entertain few anxieties about mobile phones, at least from the perspective of a child's physical well being. On the contrary, on page 105, para 4.113, accepting the reality of mobile phone usage by youngsters Byron said

...since 21% of 5-7 year olds have a mobile phone (Ofcom, 2008), I recommend that the mobile phone industry consider offering specific products for young children, such as phones without internet access

I am not complaining about the mobile industry's failure to advertise or promote their products and services to children and young people. In various countries advertising all kinds of stuff to children is heavily circumscribed, and rightly so. The Bailey Review (Recommendation 9, page 17) could be taking us in the same direction. Nobody wants to add to the monetization of childhood.

My beef is with the narrow way the industry interpreted the Stewart injunction. It's one thing not to push commercial products, but, with very few exceptions, the networks and the handset manufacturers decided to refrain from producing and putting out themselves anything at all that was specifically directed at sub-16s, including information about safety.

Ostensibly originally this was because companies were worried that if they took a different line they would risk being accused of marketing by the back door, thereby undermining the holy object that is Stewart. Given the actual levels of ownership and usage by sub-16s I think we can all agree the rear entrance has been well and truly breached. That argument can and should be discarded.

Here's the paradox. Despite the adopted restriction the mobile phone companies nonetheless produce tons of safety material about children's and young people's safe use of their devices, but nominally it's all aimed at their parents and teachers.

Alternatively the operators work through third parties or proxies, normally charities. Not a bad thing to do and to keep on doing, but this combination does not a comprehensive strategy make. Think of all the marketing genius that goes into our big mobile companies' campaigns. If only a small fraction of that glitter and stardust went into safety I think we would all be a lot further down the track.

Some of the materials aimed at parents and the materials provided to schools, particularly through initiatives like Teach Today, are world class. But do they always hit every relevant and important bull's-eye? How much better might things be if the companies were, in addition, stress in addition, engaging directly and unapologetically with the millions of youngsters whom we all know make up a significant part of their present and future customer base? It cannot be beyond the wit of a smart enterprise to come up with materials which unambiguously are not about selling. If the networks are really worried they could get an independent source to clear and endorse any materials beforehand.

I fully accept that what the companies do will always only be but a part of the total educational effort required for consumers in general and children and young people in particular. In the latter case what goes on in and around schools, in the classroom through the curriculum and every day teaching, is at least as important, if not more so because it carries with it the possibility of being immediate and personalised.

Ridiculous consequence number two. Here's the conundrum, or actually several conundrums.

We've seen that the mobile networks in the UK do not directly target anything to persons under the age of 16. Yet Moshi Monsters can and do. I have only ever heard good things about Moshi Monsters. I don't have a problem with that. The site is hugely popular. The owners have understood two stand out facts: the future is in mobiles and in the real world kids have them. Put the two together and done appropriately, done right, it's a win-win.

As a matter of fact there appears to be a burgeoning industry in the mobile space creating educational apps and games for the very young. Some of us might lament the passing of painting by numbers and building a scale model of a pirate ship from toilet rolls but times change. I have seen dozens of apps which are advertised as being suitable for children between the ages of 0 and 4! Have a look at these for sub five year old iPhone users! OK. I guess they could be using one of their parents' iPhones, but you can be sure many won't be! They'll already have their own, or presently will.

Thus everyone else can create and market apps that drag or entice children to mobiles, the devices of tomorrow, but not the companies that manufacture many of them or the enterprises which create and run key networks which they use. That makes no sense. I can see that if you own the platform or run the network you might have a possible in-built advantage you could exploit, but we have competition rules to deal with things like that. And it's hardly an unknown phenomenon in the high tech world in which we all now live.

Precisely because the mobile companies are so closely monitored or regulated in most markets where they operate, if they were free to get involved in these sorts of activities we could expect to see high quality apps emerging which might set new standards others would be forced to follow.

Definitions of what constitutes a mobile phone are getting fuzzier. A number of devices which are clearly not phones in the ordinary sense of the word, because they do not have a SIM card in them, are most definitely hovering around the edges of what many of us think a telephone is. If a tablet can Skype is it a phone? If any device can Skype is it a phone? How many parents and teachers know about voip?

A number of the companies that apply the Stewart strictures within the UK cannot possibly actually believe in them. If they did they would follow the same practices in all of the markets in which they operate. But they don't.

Stewart focused on mobile in a voice world and devices which could connect to what we loosely call the GSM network, typically through a device with a SIM card. Now we are in a data age where texting, emailing and the mobile internet are far more relevant. Little if any of this necessitates putting things near your head. Wifi usage and coverage have grown rapidly with smartphone usage. This was not foreseen or covered by Stewart. Portability and communications are very different over 10 years later. It must be time to revisit Stewart, or at the very least it must be time to iron out the anomalies that have emerged in its wake.

Elsewhere we are constantly told about the importance of being platform independent and technology neutral. That simply does not exist with mobiles because of Stewart. The mobile companies have been manoeuvred into a blind alley by a report that is now hopelessly out of date. The sooner that is recognized the better it will be for policy-making all round. No one gains by maintaining the fiction about sub-16 year olds.

The mobile phone companies' wider efforts around child safety are frequently, quite rightly pointed to and praised. These efforts are by no means restricted to the matters mentioned earlier in this blog. The operators also invest heavily, for instance, in technical solutions which work at network level to block the distribution of child abuse images and they apply an adult bar to keep over 18 content away from the handsets of minors.

All in all everyone might wish that all those companies that faced no obstacles to acting in the mobile space did as much as the companies that seemingly do!