Phone firms targeting of under-fives is 'as bad as marketing junk food' say MPs

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Senior MPs are calling for an urgent government inquiry into the "targeting" of children with cartoon mobile phone merchandise, including Winnie the Pooh, dangly soft toys and Scooby-Doo mobile phone covers.

They warn that a huge selection of mobile phone toy accessories and "wallpaper", includingToy Story ringtones, Tigger phone "danglies" and Finding Nemo phone covers are encouraging children as young as four to use handsets.

Phil Willis, the chairman of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, called on the Department of Health last night to launch an urgent inquiry into the marketing of mobile accessories to children. He said the issue was potentially as serious as the marketing of junk food and sugary drinks to primary school pupils.

Mr Willis warned that the Government was in danger of breaching its own guidelines on the use of mobile phones for young children, which says they should be used infrequently to ensure there are no possible health risks.

Experts have urged a "precautionary approach", because children have thinner skulls than adults and developing brains. John Carr, of the children's charity NCH, said he was concerned that while service providers such as Vodafone and Orange were observing a voluntary agreement not to market phones to children, others were cashing in with cartoon phone accessories.The average age at which children now receive their first mobile is eight. Ninety per cent of children between 13 and 14 carry handsets.

Companies such as Disney and Warner Brothers market a large selection of accessories. Disney is considering starting a mobile phone company, aimed at families. In the UK, it produces a range of ringtones, wallpaper and other accessories based on characters in its children's films. Warner Brothers also offers a wide range variety of mobile features, including the Flintstones, the Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo.

Mr Willis said: "The Secretary of State should investigate if there are abuses going on in and around the targeting of children with mobile accessories."

An official inquiry into the safety of mobile phones has recommended not giving phones to children under eight. Sir William Stewart, head of the National Radiological Protection Board, concluded that there was no health risk linked to their use. But he added: "When it comes to three- to eight-year-olds, I can't believe [giving them mobiles] can be justified."

A spokesman for Disney said yesterday that the company always acted responsibly, and was considering developing a Disney-branded mobile phone service for families in the US and elsewhere.

"Here, we are looking at family product options that would uphold the high standards of the Disney brand and include features attractive to families, such as parental controls, among others," said a spokeswoman.

The Department of Health said: "We encourage parents to make sure that children keep their calls short and use mobile phones for essential calls only."