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Disaster Threatens When The Telephone Kids Go Mobile

Frankfurt (dpa) – Parents all over the world are familiar with the problem –
give a child unsupervised access to a telephone, and trouble is bound to
follow. Today, with mobiles, the problem’s a nightmare.

In the past, a telephone lock, or, as one television advert suggested wryly,
mounting the phone out of harm’s reach just under the ceiling, were ways of
removing the temptation. With the arrival of the mobile phone, limiting the
kids’ vast capacity to chatter is far more difficult.

Young people love the telephone, and if it is a mobile it has got to be good.
They can phone their friends (and their parents) wherever they are – in the
train or bus, in the classroom or on the street. But for all the convenience
and promises of fun, when young mobile phoners lose control, debts soon start
mounting up. It’s usually the parents who have to foot the bill.

Cordula Neuhaus runs a children’s therapy centre in Esslingen, near Stuttgart,
where she meets young people aged between ten and 17 who regularly run up
monthly phone bills of 400 to 2,250 dollars.

The cases she sees have convinced her that learning how to use the telephone
sensibly is as important to a child’s upbringing as learning how to deal with
money. If it isn’t learnt early on and the parents get into the habit of
settling the child’s debts, the dangers for that child in adulthood are often
serious.

Catchy advertising slogans on television such as “Be cool in school with a
mobile” have led to a rapid increase in children with cellular phones, says
Neuhaus. Parents can then only gape in disbelief when they get the bill. Adding
to the problem, it is often grandmothers and aunts who buy the children the
status symbol they want. Usually, they are as unaware as the parents of the
costs which can mount up.

Britta Masuch, at the consumer advice centre in Solingen (North Rhine-
Westphalia), explains that signing a 24-month contract can result in bills of
75 dollars every month even with little use.

And contrary to popular belief, pre-paid cards for cell phones, which cease to
function once the 12.50 or 25 dollars credit has been used up, do not protect
parents from high telephone bills. Anna, a schoolgirl, used a telephone card
and ended up with 70 dollars in charges. Her friend Pia, who is just 13, ran up
debts with Mannesmann Mobilfunk’s service to the tune of 86 dollars, says legal
adviser Helga Zander-Hayat at the consumer’s advice centre.

The reason for these deceptive bills are the fact that only the costs of
phoning are deducted from the card immediately. The costs for the Short Message
Service – which allows mobile users to send each other short text messages – is
billed two weeks later. “With particularly frequent use, this is quite common,”
says Christian Schwolow at Mannesmann Mobilfunk. Although the service provider
is not willing to issue bills quicker, it has agreed to issue invoices of up to
20 marks (10 dollars) when this sum is reached.

Regardless of whether a pre-paid card is used, it is questionable whether 10-
year-olds should have use of a mobile at all. “It’s often unnecessary,” says
educationalist Peter Struck of Hamburg University.

There are exceptions, of course, if the child has to walk to and from school
along a hazardous route, for example.

Psychologist Neuhaus considers that it borders on the irresponsible to let
children under 14 loose on a cell phone. Children, she says, are already
overloaded with the world of media which has been shown to lead to lack of
concentration. Also young adults may not be able to deal with their money if
they have not learnt young enough that there are limits.

“Children often seem to believe that money falls out of the sky or that it
comes from an inexhaustible cash dispenser,” says consumer- protection agent
Britta Masuch.

This is why not all wishes should be granted. From her work in debt counselling
at the consumer office, Masuch is familiar with what she terms “telephone
careers.”

Young adults come to her with two broken contracts and debts of 5,000 dollars.
She advise parents before they buy their offspring a mobile to agree on strict
rules and to inform themselves beforehand of the possible costs. Talking about
the bills, such as who should pay what, can be helpful. “Times of day when the
telephone may be used can also be stipulated.”

Peter Struck says that it is vitally important that youngsters pay the basic
charges and units themselves. It can never hurt if the young mobile owners earn
the money needed to run a phone themselves.

In some families, a limit is set beyond which the kids have to pay the bill
themselves. Only this way can the correct use of money be learnt. If the
youngsters do get carried away parents should never take away all their pocket
money. “That can lead to stealing,” says Neuhaus. A better way is to let them
pay off the debts with work.

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