Monday, March 10, 2008

Cell phones & Kids: A bad call

Eight years ago when I wrote about AT&T's promoting cell phones to kids, the company denied it was actually targeting youngsters. The Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck phone jackets they had put on the market that Christmas were meant to entice the adults in the family, said a spokesperson, because, after all, only adults can actually sign up for a phone. Wink, wink.

Well, the industry isn't shy about its marketing any more. Getting kids to demand cell phones is a major market strategy, and all those family plans have now pushed the average age of new cellphone users to a tender 10. But there's still so much more market to tap, and concerns about health effects be damned.

The New York Times reported recently that simplified phones designed for children as young as 5 are now being pushed with no apology from anyone in industry.

This despite the fact that the same concerns about the safety of cell phone use by youngsters remain unresolved, just as they were 8 years ago.

The crux of the problem is that cell phones may cause tumors or otherwise affect a developing brain because the radio-frequency microwaves they emit can penetrate the skull. (Microwave ovens use this radiation to cook food!) A 1995 study showed that the smaller heads of five- and ten-year old children absorb more radiation than adult-sized heads, and the raditation penetrates farther into their brains.

Is there definite proof that children are being harmed? No, but out of an abudance of caution, for example, parents stand out on bus stops with their children in sheltered suburban neighborhoods, rain or shine, on the remote chance they could be kidnapped. The same caution should apply to cell phone use by childrten. Indeed, as The Times reported, France's health minister issued an alert in January warning parents to reduce children's use of cell phones. This followed a similar warning by a French government research group that now expects to conduct a study of the subject.

Cell phone companies, of course, are still taking the view that more research is needed and that, in the meantime, parents shouldn't worry. That was exactly their attitude 8 years ago, when Dr. George Carlo, who had headed a six-year program paid for by the cell industry to investigate cell phone safety, told me: "The evidence we've accumulated indicates that children could be at especial risk."

Personally, I wouldn't give a child a cell phone to use on a regular basis. And, on the other hand, I'd let my kids be kids and stand on the bus stop by themselves.

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