Mosquito Alarm

buzz off

teen buzz

‘The Mosquito’ or Mosquito alarm is an electronic device used to deter loitering by young people by emitting sound at high frequency that older people have lost the ability to hear. It has two frequency settings, one of approximately 17.4 kHz that can generally be heard only by young people, and another at 8 kHz that can be heard by most people. The maximum potential output sound pressure level is stated by the manufacturer to be 108 decibels. The range of the sound is 140 feet with the sound baffle, and 200 feet without. 

The sound can typically only be heard by people below 25 years of age, as the ability to hear high frequencies deteriorates with age (a phenomenon known as presbycusis). Crafty teenagers turned the sounds into a mobile phone ringtone, which could not be heard by older teachers if the phone rang during a class. Mobile phone speakers are capable of producing frequencies above 20 kHz. This ringtone became informally known as ‘Teen Buzz’ or ‘the Mosquito ringtone’ and has since been sold commercially.

The device is marketed as a safety and security tool for preventing youths from congregating in specific areas. In the UK, over 3,000 have been sold, mainly for use outside shops and near transport hubs. Critics say that it discriminates against young people and infringes their human rights, while supporters argue that making the device would infringe the rights of shopkeepers who suffer business losses when ‘unruly teenagers’ drive away their customers. Mosquito distributors have said that they keep standards to ensure that the device is not abused, and Howard Stapleton who invented the device has asked European governments to legislate guidelines governing its use.

The Mosquito was invented by British security consultant Howard Stapleton in 2005, and was originally tested in Barry, South Wales, where it was successful in reducing teenagers loitering near a grocery store. The idea was born after he was irritated by a factory noise when he was a child. The push to create the product was when Mr. Stapleton’s 17-year-old daughter went to the store to buy milk and was harassed by a group of 12 to 15-year-olds. Using his children as test subjects, he determined the frequency of ‘The Mosquito.’ The Mosquito was released to the mainstream market in 2006, through Stapleton’s company Compound Security Solutions.

In 2008, in response to a national campaign launched by the Children’s Commissioner for England, Liberty, and the National Youth Agency, the government issued a statement insisting that ‘Mosquito alarms are not banned and the government has no plans to ban them.’ The Mosquito won the ‘Ig Nobel for Peace’ in 2006. The Ig Nobels celebrate the quirkier side of serious scientific endeavor, honoring ‘achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.’

The German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health stated in a report on The Mosquito, entitled ‘Use of ultrasonic noise channels not entirely safe’: ‘The results of the examination are now available. The auditors were not able to certify this device as completely safe. The risk to the target group of teenagers and young adults is relatively low. They can leave the area when they hear the sound. On the other hand small children and infants are especially at risk, due to lengthy exposure to the sound, because the adults themselves do not perceive the noise. Moreover, the ultrasound affects not only hearing. Disruption of the equilibrium senses, as well as other extra-aural effects are well known. With the sound levels that can be reached by the device, the onset of dizziness, headache, nausea and impairment is to be expected. This is not the limit of the total risks to safety and health.’ In a United Kingdom survey of the relevant studies of adults exposed to high frequency sound in an occupational context for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in 2001, it was concluded that the studies were inadequate to establish guidelines for safe exposure. The Mosquito’s manufacturer relies on these inconclusive adult studies to justify the safety of the device.

The Mosquito has received support and endorsements from municipalities, school districts, property management companies, convenience stores and other organisations. Rochdale Safer Communities Partnership said the borough was committed to the continued use of the Mosquito: ‘We feel totally justified in deploying Mosquito devices in the borough of Rochdale to give the community respite in cases of acute anti-social behaviour and youth nuisance,’ she said. ‘We use the devices when there are large groups of young people making life a problem for residents and businesses, as we are very keen not to let problems of anti-social behaviour escalate.’

The Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) also supports the usage of the device, and so does British Retail Consortium (BRC), stating that ‘Not all young people are involved in violence, but given that some retail staff are facing a level of insolence [from teenagers] they have to have the option of doing what they can to protect themselves. They are entitled to discourage threatening groups from hanging around or in their shops.’ At the Maple Ridge, Pitt Meadows and Vancouver west side school districts in British Columbia, Canada, the device has been credited with lowering exterior vandalism at one school by about 40%.

The opposition, however, categorizes it as an indiscriminate weapon. A UK campaign called ‘Buzz off’ is calling for The Mosquito to be banned. Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, has claimed that the sound is ‘untested [and] unregulated’ and that it can be a ‘sonic weapon directed against children and young people.’ Albert Aynsley-Green, the former Children’s Commissioner for England, critizised the devices for indiscriminately targeting all children and infants regardless of their behavior. He described such measures as ‘demonizing children and young people,’ and creating a ‘dangerous and widening divide’ between the young and the old.

The Committee on Culture, Science and Education of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe prepared a report stating that this device violates many articles of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and should be banned in Europe, because it is often ‘painful’ and causes ‘degrading and discriminatory consequences for young people.’ In 2008, Baroness Sarah Ludford MEP moved a motion to the European Parliament to ban the use of the Mosquito. It failed to get enough signatures from MEPs to proceed to a full debate. So far only Belgium has passed legislation banning the device.

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