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The addiction of children to their mobile phones could threaten the very fabric of society, a study suggests.

Many teenagers are fanatical about being always available and are extremely uneasy if unable to contact their friends countless times each day.

If the trend continues, young people will soon be incapable of forming and maintaining relationships without the help of a mobile, the study by a leading sociologist concludes.

One British child in four between the ages of five and 16 now has a mobile phone.

As well as making calls, youngsters are using their handsets to send millions of text messages to friends each day.

The study's author, Dr Hisao Ishii, said: 'Teenagers can be seen taking advantage of every spare minute to touch base with their friends.

'It is not the content of the communication but the act of staying in touch that matters.'

And he warned: 'Genuine conversation will be driven out by superficial communication, in which the act of contacting one another is all that matters, leading to a deterioration in the quality of relationships. Indeed, the very fabric of society may be threatened.'

Although Dr Ishii's research was based on children in Japan, British experts confirmed that the same trends apply in the UK.

Child psychologist Dr David Lewis said: 'The mobile phone, like the Furby or the Rubik's Cube before it, has developed into a playground craze in this country.

'Children hate to feel as if they are not in the "in group", and think that without a phone they will be left out.

'It is like an electronic tribal drum. Children use it to keep up to date with a wide group of acquaintances, so that when they meet up they know the latest news and gossip.'

Dr Lewis endorsed the warning that, in conjunction with home computers and video games, the mobile is having a detrimental effect on children's social skills.

'The mobile now often substitutes for physical play,' he explained.

'To develop proper friendships you have to invest time with people, doing things together.

'Speaking on the phone and sending lots of text messages will give children many more acquaintances but fewer friends. They are replacing quality with quantity.'

Sociologists have also warned that the popularity of e-mailing, text messaging and playing games on mobile phones is affecting other important activities such as recreational reading and studying.

A third of those aged between 16 and 20 prefer text messaging to all other means of written communication, according to a survey last year by Mori for Vodafone.

Handset manufacturers claim, however, that they are not out to market to the under-16s.

A Government report last year highlighted the increased risk to children under 16 using mobile handsets and a circular sent to schools suggests that children below this age should be allowed to make calls only in emergencies.

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