As youngsters across the country sit down to compose their Christmas lists and write pleading letters to Santa, Heather Harris looks over their shoulders…
The treasured possessions of our childhood were Action Man and Sindy. Blackberry picking took place in the hedgerow, not the local branch of Carphone Warehouse, and the only things we downloaded were bricks out of the back of our toy trucks.
But now we've rung the changes and all joined the mobile phone revolution. According to a recent UK study of 1,425 people by the charity Personal Finance Education Group (PFEG), the average age at which children are given their first mobile phone is now eight years old. ‘More than a third of children own a mobile by the time they are that age,’ the report revealed.
Presumably these little communicators need to be in constant touch with their Cub Scout leader in case they’re late for a pack meeting or want to text the local Park Keeper to see how busy the swings are that afternoon – because, at that age, what other pressing business do they have to deal with that requires them to be instantly reachable?
A subscriber to popular parenting website Mumsnet recently questioned whether she should dissuade her parents-in-law from buying her five-year-old a ‘tablet’ on the grounds that her child would be disappointed because she was used to the (superior) family iPad. A five-year-old has an opinion on technology? Responses varied on whether the child was a brat, and exchanges were vicious.
I got my first mobile – think house brick but with its own carry case – when I worked at British Airways in the early 90s and had to be contactable in an emergency. At the time I presumed – stupidly – that this was (and that it would remain) the purpose of such technology. Leap forward just twenty years and a Blackberry is top of every pre-teen Christmas present list. Sindy has been deleted and Action Man downgraded (instead of downloaded).
According to a survey in the Daily Express, 26% of parents cite safety as the reason for giving their young child a mobile phone. That’s particularly ironic, as latest police statistics reveal that the fastest growing crime involving young people is phone theft. And, as social commentators Powerwatch recently said, ‘Through their mobiles young children can be exposed to bullying, disturbing and explicit images, gambling, predators and rip-off schemes.’
Everything pales into insignificance when faced with pester power. As another Mumsnet subscriber, mother of a seven-year-old boy, explained, ‘Everybody else at school had one so how could I deprive my son?’
The same explanation is also applied (gently using hot wax) to the prickly subject of hair removal. The beautician at my local salon recently admitted, as she massaged the knots in my neck and I bit on the towel in agony, “We have had girls as young as nine coming in with their mums for an underarm or leg wax.”
This has raised a (bushy) eyebrow or two at The British Association of Beauty Therapy and Cosmetology, where Julie Speed, Director of Operations, told me: “For the majority of standard beauty treatments such as waxing, there are no harmful physical side-effects, but we need to be careful we’re not making them grow up too fast. My advice to parents is always work on the basis of ‘need’ – does your child need to have a treatment done? In some cases, the answer will be yes, for example if a child has early puberty and dark hair growth, but if not, then it may not be the right time to introduce it.”
And when Mumsnet highlighted the problem of little girls wanting to visit the hairdressers for all sorts of dyeing, colouring and streaks, many respondents saw red. “Children are cutest when left as nature intended. They do not need beautifying in any way and that includes hair dyes and piercings. It's nasty, tacky and yuck!”
The Child of Our Time documentaries presented by Robert Winston on BBC1 have covered a huge variety of thought-provoking issues, but, interestingly, it was when a tiny baby was shown complete with large gold earring in each lobe that Twitter lit up, revealing that thankfully there are still some things that needle us in our increasingly liberal society.
The British banking system shares the sentiment that certain responsibilities are best left until adulthood, but, curiously, their age limits don't seem to add up.
A spokesman for the British Banking Association admitted to having no idea at what age a child can open a bank account, suggesting that there was no uniform ruling. Barclays were more forthcoming: Alan White, their Press Officer, explained that at the age of 11 a child can queue up at their local branch without their parent and ‘manage their own funds, so put money in and out of their own account’. Quite how they see over the counter is another matter.
And there was me thinking that piggy banks were the closest pre-teens got to a financial institution. In fact, more and more parents are apparently cutting out the middle man and setting up pocket money on a direct debit into their child's account. Now piggy is threatened with extinction, it does raise the question of whose money Mum and Dad ‘borrows’ when the milkman arrives unexpectedly for payment on a Monday morning.
My guilt at such ‘theft’ (yes, I’ve been there) was always justified by the belief that my children would only spend it on sweets anyway. Not so, revealed the PFEG survey: ‘Young children are now increasingly financially aware, with peer pressure forcing them to get to grips with money to afford mobile phone ringtones, call costs and computer games.’
So not just Haribo and chocolate then…
The survey also found that children as young as seven were offering to do jobs in exchange for cash to buy ringtones, and that by the age of ten, they were shopping online using their parents' debit or credit cards. A spate of news items earlier in the year has also reported how primary school children in both the UK and the USA had managed to run up phenomenally large parental credit card bills (£1,000 and more) by ‘accidentally’ purchasing in-game add-ons; it’s evident that their financial acumen is developing along unusual lines. Presumably, by the time they’re 12 they will have taken out an endowment mortgage and put a down payment on a Time Share in Barbados.
Oh, and bought themselves a suitably 'grown-up' wardrobe, complete with cropped tops to show off their pierced belly buttons, and hoodies with slogans that most of them don't even understand let alone know how to spell.
Media outrage over pop star Justin Bieber arriving on stage two hours late for a midweek concert, leaving, ‘Children as young as five crying’, said as much about modern parenting as it did about the professionalism of this teen idol. Surely, at five years old, a few chapters of Thomas the Tank Engine is about as thrilling an entertainment as they need on a school night, followed by 12 hours sleep?
If they've been waxed, pierced and dyed, and have made mobile phone calls to Barclays to discuss their account while heading off in their designer gear to the 02, all before they hit puberty, you do wonder what is left for them to do when they ‘grow up’?
The fact is, though, that children seem to hit a plateau. By the time GCSE exams loom, the majority are too preoccupied with homework to organise a mid-week concert trip and too busy saving up for driving lessons to waste their allowance on mobile ringtones. As sweet sixteen approaches, youngsters are more likely to be looking back at old photos of themselves (plastered in make-up, teetering around in high heels) and cringing than baring their bejewelled midriff.
It would be naïve to suggest they're suddenly heading up into the attic to find an old Action Man or Sindy but at least they are no longer careering towards adulthood at an unstoppable rate. Just like our favourite little Tank Engine, they've hit the buffers and they’re all the better for it.