by Claire Carter
The phone does not allow access to text messaging or the internet, removing risks associated with mobile phones, and, the makers say, makes it easy for parents to stay in touch with their children .
But experts warned the '1stFone', which costs £55 and is available on a contract or pay as you go basis, risks playing on parents' fears of abduction and represents a worrying commercialisation of children. Concerns have also been raised about the health implications for very young children using mobile phones.
The phone was launched by OwnFone on Thursday, which has previously collaborated with Age UK on a telephone for the elderly. It is available on a made to order basis through the company’s website. Instead of a screen it just has the names of people to call on the front of it, which can be pre-programmed and older children can have 999 pre programmed.
Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, said marketing a phone for children so young was “just another way of trying to make money out of children and their parents.”
However Mrs Palmer, a former headteacher, and other childcare experts have said the idea behind the phone, aimed at four to nine year-olds, in an era where children want mobiles and the latest technology, could be a positive step.
Mrs Palmer said parents felt more comfortable if they could contact their child easily in all situations, and in principle a simple phone – that removed the dangers of the internet – could be a good idea.
She added: “It’s a very tricky one. I would love to see a phone marketed for children under the age of 14 with no access to the internet. But four years old is extremely young. The point is it’s once they are going out on their own.The point is to look at what’s sensible, healthy and reasonable for children.”
“The marketing of technology to very young children is just a hook to get them into techno-consumerism,” she added.
Dr Agnes Nairn, the author of a Unicef report which compared childhood in Britain with that other European countries, said the phone needed to be marketed sensibly. She warned if it becomes popular it could put pressure on parents who think they need to buy one for their four year olds. But she said, for a phone that helped parents remain in contact with their children easily without the usual dangers of mobile phones, it was a "very good idea."
She said: “You get this arms race of having to have the latest technology and there are big safety issues with being on the internet. You would give your child a phone if they are somewhere you are not, but four does seem a little young.”
Siobhan Freegard, founder of the UK parenting site Netmums.com said while a phone can be useful, children of four should not need one because they ought not be separated from their parents. She said: "It's sadly yet another example of firms ringing up profits before children's welfare.
“Marketing mobiles to pre-school children is wrong. No four year old needs their own phone as they should never be left alone or in a situation where they need to ring an adult.”
Thomas Sunderland, founder and inventor of OwnFone said: "Parents can stay in touch with their child even if they are as young as four without putting them at risk from sexting, text bullying, stumbling across inappropriate images on the internet or even being mugged for their smartphone.
“It's up to the parent at what age they feel their child needs to be contactable, we just want to ensure when that time comes, there's a product that minimises usage and poses no threat or danger to their safety."
Mr Sunderland said the limitations of the phone means the health risks associated with a lot of mobile use is reduced.