Buzz Off!

No, “buzz off” does not mean that I am being grumpy and telling everyone to Go Away. There are apparently a lot of other people out there who are grumpy about Mosquitos, but not the insect kind. The story (like most) gets complex very fast.

So. There are some young people who hang out in front of shops or public areas and are annoying, even to the point of committing misdemeanors. This is hardly a new problem of urban settings; doubtless ancient Greek and Roman shopkeepers complained about much the same thing. In addition to the primary problems of what the yobbos / chavs / hooligans (pick your fave term) may engage in, there’s the secondary problem of their presence intimidating customers and driving away trade.

Of course, not all young people act like this. In fact, very, very few do. And young people, like people of other age groups, like to get together with their pals and socialise. Of course, when you’re young you don’t have your own place, and not everyone wants to hang around the living room where dad’s watching Top Gear or yet another history programme about some war or another. So kids hang around in parks, on sidewalks, in malls, and other public areas. And then people complain because shockingly, there are kids hanging around. Well, duh; few can afford to spend lots of cash at movie theatres or pool halls or video game parlors, and if you’re not spending, they don’t want you there.

Back in 2005, Howard Stapleton realised that he could use teens’ better hearing against them. In theory, young people can hear up to 20 kHz (20,000 Hertz), but as people age they lose this ability due to presbycusis. Although most older adults can pass a basic hearing exam with flying colors, such exams only test up to 8,000 Hz, because audiologists are concerned with how well people perceive common speech and environmental sounds. (This concept also assumes that those targeted have not had any hearing loss due to listening to loud music in vehicles, headphones, and / or concerts.) Thus, the Mosquito device was born.

According to a distributor’s description, these speakers broadcast a 17.5-18.5 kHz tone at 75 decibels. Although not damaging, the whine becomes very annoying after a couple of minutes, and those who can hear it usually leave after a few minutes, although the unit runs for 20 minutes before shutting off. It can be heard 15 meters / 50 feet away, with stronger models audible as far as 90 meters / 300 feet away.

The Mosquito device proved popular with a number of shopkeepers and other business owners; some 3500 units have been installed around the UK, to prevent young people from congregating outside of stores, rail stations, car parks, industrial areas, city parks, and even school grounds (used after hours). Now it’s being sold in the U.S. and Canada as well.

Naturally, there were protests about the use of the devices. The prototype was banned in its place of inception, Newport, South Wales. Although legal elsewhere, other groups have taken up complaint, and not just young people:

Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Children in Scotland, and the Scottish Youth Parliament fully support the campaign launched today in England against the use of the Mosquito device.

So too is Liberty, the National Youth Agency, the Children’s Commissioner for England, which is spearheading the Buzz Off campaign.

Frankly, I find the whole idea of using sonic deterrents as weapons (attack devices) against young people to be abhorrent. These things target and punish all young people present for the actions of a few. You get what you give, so how is being deliberately obnoxious supposed to encourage better social behavior in others? We don’t like it when people go around playing their music too loud, so why is it okay to broadcast high-pitched whines that are meant to get on people’s nerves?

Furthermore, the manufacturers and users assume that only young people can hear these sounds, and that simply isn’t true. I’m 47 and I can hear such frequencies (despite the tinnitus), and a 75 kHz noise is also pretty damn loud, even if it’s not technically at the damaging threshold. If I came across a shop that was using this sonic attack, the shopkeeper would certainly get an earful from me! There’s too much noise as it is, without adding gratuitous noise.

It’s not that I don’t sympathise with business owners and other citizens who are dealing with the effects of antisocial or criminal behavior. But this kind of antisocial retaliation hurts everyone, and is blatant discrimination.


  1. LisaDroesdov said,

    7 April 2008 at 18:07

    As someone barely past teenagerhood, I find this really upsetting. Where would they rather teens hang out? Dark alleys? Sure, some of them may cause a disturbance. That’s what police or mall security is hired for. Others may be waiting for a safe ride home or waiting for parents. Still others may even be working for the shopping complex where the Mosquito device is employed. Many shopping malls hire teens to give surveys, hand out flyers, and the like. Should they really force the malls to hire only older people because young people can’t do their jobs in front of certain stores.

    And, as The Goldfish said, babies would certainly be bawling instantly. Even if they’re not shopping at that particular store, parents with infants in arms just walking by would likely have a screaming mess on their hands- and no idea why, if they’re in the subset that can’t hear those frequencies.

    I think at the very least a LARGE SIGN that says “MOSQUITO AUDITORY DETERRENT IN USE, MAY UPSET CHILDREN AND SERVICE ANIMALS” should be mandatory for any business using these deterrents, so anyone who either would be harmed by or would rather not support the use of the Mosquito can see evidence of its use far enough away not to hear it, and take their business elsewhere.

  2. The Goldfish said,

    6 April 2008 at 11:42

    They have actually experimented with classical music playing at bus shelters and similar places that the youngsters hang out, here in the UK. But there’s no piece of music which wouldn’t irritate everyone if played on a loop all night.

    This is an odd story because it alarmed me but nobody I’ve spoken to seems bothered. The response I had expected was a great concern for babies. This stuff surely guarantees that every baby and tot is likely to start crying on hearing this, which is going to disturb everyone.

    Frankly, I think we need to dynamically change our cultural relationship to teenagers. But I guess that isn’t going to help many businesspeople this evening…

  3. Justthisguy said,

    6 April 2008 at 5:13

    I would go for Haydn, or Mozart, m’self. Anybody who doesn’t like Mozart’s music is probably somebody with whom I don’t want to associate.

    Of course I have said that there is nothing wrong with any rocknroll band that ever existed which couldn’t be fixed with a fire axe and a Thompson…

    P.s. If full-auto weapons are illegal where you are, substitute “12-pounder loaded with canister” for “Thompson.”

  4. Mel said,

    5 April 2008 at 23:33

    I wonder how people would react if this was at a level audible to most people. Luckily I haven’t encountered this anywhere yet.
    To Ms. Clark: This doesn’t just affect teens who ‘gather in front of the store and hour hours on end’. It affects those who wait outside the shop for a few minutes, say with a dog, and those who stand around in a carpark while loading a car. I’m a teenager, and somewhat oversensitive to sounds – if I was in this situation, I would be probably inclined to keep away from the area entirely. I appreciate where you’re coming from – I myself have sometimes been intimidated by groups of people my own age – but I don’t think it should mean that every person under 20 or so is forced away along with the few who cause trouble.

  5. Ms. Clark said,

    5 April 2008 at 19:20

    Eek. I mean:
    “I think this whole thing presupposes that people have nicely asked a large group of teens not to gather in front of the store for an hour or hours on end.” and the group refuses to move.

  6. Ms. Clark said,

    5 April 2008 at 19:18

    I wonder how irritating it is to dogs if they aren’t required to stand there in place for minutes and instead just walk through the area flooded with the sound.

    I think this who thing presupposes that people have nicely asked a large group of teens not to gather in front of the store and hour hours on end (which is what I’ve seen happen). I think if people are avoiding entering the store because a large group of teens is there, and they don’t responde to “please don’t hang out here,” then something needs to be done. If one of those kids grew up to be a shop owner, he’d probably have the same concerns.

    I get the point, though that it’s frequently hard to find things for teens to do and that there parents need to be more involved in finding them hobbies or something, where possible.

  7. qw88nb88 said,

    5 April 2008 at 17:40

    Heh, I was thinking of suggesting Barry Manilow or some of the softer classical music, but most places already have too much loud music as it is!


  8. Fledchen said,

    5 April 2008 at 14:07

    It’s also discriminatory against people who use service animals. Dogs (depending upon age and breed) can hear up to 45khz.

  9. Ms. Clark said,

    5 April 2008 at 8:32

    Ooops, I’m not 45. I’m 48.

  10. Ms. Clark said,

    5 April 2008 at 8:31

    I have had to walk into buildings past groups of teens (as an adult) and felt intimidated by them. My years of having been bullied by teens have left a mark. I’d rather spend a few seconds listening to the mosquito as I walk into a business than walk through a gauntlet of teens (depending on who they were, off course, but there are gangs of non-criminal but mean kids who would love to make snide remarks about an ASD person as he or she walked past. At 45 I just do not want to deal with someone pointing out that they don’t approve of my clothing or my car.

    This assumes that once inside the business I could no longer hear the mosquito noise (I know I can hear it, I can hear the “mosquito” ring-tone for cellphones). If I was a teen in an area where bullies hang out in front of stores I might want to go into, I’d be grateful for shop owners dispersing the crowd that way. Though I suppose I ‘d be more grateful if they dispersed the crowd with Barry Manilow, 1950’s show-tunes, or Handel, if that was as effective (and it might be).

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