Originally published on spiked.
Yesterday, civil libertarians and concerned officials launched a campaign called ‘Buzz Off’, with the aim of ridding Britain’s streets and estates of 3,500 ultra-sonic devices called ‘the Mosquito’.
Introduced at locations around the country in January 2006, these little machines emit a disturbing buzzing noise that is only audible to those unlucky enough to be under 20 years of age. It is used – almost unbelievably – to force unruly ‘yoof’ away from shopping centres and other open, public areas across the UK; it effectively screeches at them until they flee.
The ‘Buzz Off’ campaign should be welcomed by anyone who thinks young people should have more freedom of movement and play in the UK. But will telling the Mosquito to ‘buzz off’ do enough to challenge the overriding view of children as menacing, and to make public arenas freer and more relaxed than they are presently under our paranoid, behaviour-obsessed government?
The Mosquito is draconian and indiscriminate; it is a technocratic approach to dealing with young people’s occasional bad behaviour. It’s a faceless and anonymous substitute for meaningful policy or policing. The Mosquito sums up the New Labour government’s retreat from engaging with and inspiring young people to dealing with them through a cattle-prod approach – that is, poking and pressuring them simply to get off the streets.
The device was invented by Howard Stapleton from Merthyr Tydfil in August 2005. When his 14-year-old daughter returned ‘empty-handed from a trip to the shop’ after having been hassled by rowdy teenagers hanging around on the streets, Stapleton decided to do something about it (1). So he created what some refer to as an ‘anti-youth gadget’.
Over the past two years, the Mosquito has been tried and tested by various local authorities and police forces. It has been championed by many small local retailers who have clamoured to get one installed on their premises. Pizza companies, corner shops, off-licences, supermarkets and shopping malls: all have introduced the Mosquito. Many claim that the Mosquito has been successful. Very few young people can stand its irritating buzzing sound for long, and have no choice but to move on.
Shopkeepers and community groups are at liberty, of course – within the confines of the law – to secure their premises in whatever ways they see fit. But the Mosquito is not about selectively targeting and dealing with small groups of especially rowdy youth; it works on another level altogether, actually impacting on all young people indiscriminately.
Anyone with ears young enough can be affected by the Mosquito, whether they are potential little thugs with stones in their hands, or a bunch of boys kicking a football around, or a baby happily sleeping in a pram. The effect of the ultra-sonic buzz takes between five and 10 minutes to work – after that build-up, it becomes so annoying that young people have to block their ears or go somewhere else. Aside from its alleged practical benefits for individual shopkeepers, the Mosquito sends a powerful symbolic message to all young people: ‘You are not welcome here, go away.’
The Buzz Off campaign is being led by the human rights outfit Liberty, the National Youth Agency, and the Children’s Commissioner for England, Professor Sir Albert Aynsley-Green. He says many young people can be ‘deeply affected’ by these kinds of anonymous, street-based deterrents (2). True – so why are campaigners exclusively focusing on the Mosquito? What about all the other arm’s-length deterrents that are used to control and disperse young people?
A spokesperson for the National Youth Agency, one of the supporters of the Buzz Off campaign, says the Mosquito is too indiscriminate and pernicious and we need better ways to target the problem of youthful disorder: ‘I’d use things like CCTV cameras, because that picks up whoever’s causing the problem. And use youth workers, who can go and talk to young people and find out what they need and see what the problem is.’ (3)
His argument does little to challenge the reason why the Mosquito was invented and so widely distributed in the first place: because young people are seen as scary and wild these days, and because people in positions of responsibility do not know how to talk to or deal with them. Indeed, there are already hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras in Britain, and various other ideas have been floated for controlling and monitoring youth. In 2006, pubs in Yeovil began experimenting with biometric fingerprinting to record young drinkers’ personal info (4). The police in Weston-super-Mare have taken to shining very bright halogen spotlights from helicopters in order to blind potential troublemakers and youthful binge-drinkers temporarily, in the hope that they will stagger off home.
Young people have also been criminalised for wearing ‘hoodies’; these garments are now banned in some shopping centres. More recently, the police have been given tougher powers to confiscate alcohol from underage teenagers who drink in public (5). The Mosquito is only the latest in a long line of initiatives that treat children and young people as strange aliens who must be kept out of the public realm: neither seen nor heard.
The Mosquito captures adult fears and uncertainties about the next generation. This faceless, hidden device, which doesn’t have to be manned by anyone and which does not involve communicating any words or ideas to young people (just a piercing noise), sums up the authorities’ sense of distance and dislocation from youth. In this sense, the Mosquito could make matters even worse: it is a constant deafening reminder to those within range that they are untrustworthy and have a propensity for Doing Wrong. It treats young people effectively like roaming beasts, shunted from one place to the next by little more than noise. The buzz follows them as they wander around… reminding them they are not yet ‘fit’ for adulthood, or to be out in public. Is it any wonder that some young people feel alienated, even angry, and sometimes respond by smashing something up or getting pissed? The failure of adult society to reason with young people, to talk to them, or even to provide them with some half-decent facilities to hang out in, can only exacerbate their feeling of being cut adrift.
Getting the Mosquito to ‘buzz off’ is a good start. But let us also challenge the cultural and political view of young people as both dangerous and endangered, and instead try communicating with them.