A Phone Safe Enough For The Kids?
June 19, 2006
The cell-phone industry sees a hot new market, but critics are worried
This month, Walt Disney Co.
is launching Disney Mobile, a cell-phone service aimed squarely at kids
and their parents. Children will be able to download exclusive Disney
content such as games, ringtones, and cool wallpaper for their screens.
The entertainment giant is hoping that moms and dads will want this new
electronic tether for their children, which includes such security
features as a global positioning system that keeps tabs on kids'
locations and the ability to control cell-phone use from a PC.
The launch represents a dramatic about-face from the fall
of 2000, when Disney abandoned plans to put Mickey and Minnie on Nokia Corp. cell-phone covers. The company retreated after a public outcry
erupted over the question of whether mobile phones posed a health
hazard, particularly to children. The big fear was that cell phones
could one day be proven to cause cancer or other neurological
disorders. The issue was controversial enough that Disney rescinded the
licensing scheme, citing uncertainty about health risks. A Disney
spokesman said at the time that it wouldn't proceed with a new plan
until "there was reliable scientific evidence establishing the absence
of any such link."
So what has changed? Actually, not much. The Disney Mobile Web site
shows Mickey, Alice in Wonderland, and other beloved characters happily
jumping out of a cell-phone screen. Safety concerns "really [haven't]
been an issue here in the U.S. for quite some time now," says Disney
Mobile spokesperson Anthony Sprauve. He added that the Food & Drug
Administration has repeatedly stated that there is no concrete data
showing any danger from cell phones. "Disney is relying on the FDA."
In some parts of the scientific community and in several European
countries, though, the question of whether cell phones are safe,
especially when it comes to kids, has yet to be answered. Britain's
advisory body on radiological hazards, the Health Protection Agency,
has issued precautionary advice urging parents to limit their kids' use
of cell phones. The HPA recommends that younger children use cell
phones only for essential purposes.
"NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE"
While there is no definitive proof of health consequences from
cell-phone radiation beaming at young skulls, there is a scientific
debate on the issue. "The agency's position is precautionary because of
the genuine uncertainties that come with the rapid introduction of any
new technology," says Dr. Mike Clark, scientific spokesman for the HPA.
"The fact that younger and younger children were using them certainly
worried us." Clark says the agency's official line is that it would be
wrong for the industry to market phones directly to children.
Cell-phone companies, Clark says, have honored that position in Britain.
The FDA, for its part, says there's no available scientific evidence of
health problems associated with using wireless phones. But it also
notes that "there is no proof, however, that wireless phones are
absolutely safe." Adds Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave News, a
journal that has tracked the issue for 25 years: "There is plenty of
data showing that we may have a serious problem on our hands, but at
this point no one really knows for sure."
Essentially, then, the U.S. offers no precautionary guidelines. So
companies are preparing to go after what analysts say is the next gold
mine: kids, even those as young as 5. Last year, Cingular Wireless (T
) launched the brightly colored Firefly, and Verizon Wireless put out a
toylike four-button phone called Migo. On June 12, Verizon will
announce a safety service for the Migo called Chaperone -- part
baby-sitter, part Big Brother. One feature notifies parents when their
child has crossed a preprogrammed boundary, such as a schoolyard.
Cingular declined to comment on the health safety concern, saying that
the real issue was kids' appropriate use of phones. Verizon said the
company has come to the conclusion that there appears to be "no
scientific evidence...that points to negative health effects to people,
including children, who use mobile phones."
For years, science has been divided over the effects of radio-frequency
(RF) energy emitted by wireless phones. We have long lived with
radiation, but what's different now is that the tiny devices have never
been so close to our heads for so many hours of the day. Researchers
and doctors worry that children could be more vulnerable to exposure
from cell phones given their thinner skulls and still-developing
brains. Some studies, the FDA says, have suggested that there may be
biological effects, "but such findings have not been confirmed by
An independent analysis of all existing studies done on cell phones is
itself divided. Dr. Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at
the University of Washington in Seattle, looked at the 319 laboratory
or clinical studies conducted on cell phones worldwide and found that
56% have shown a biological effect in cells or animals exposed to RF
radiation, while 44% have not -- though there is also controversy over
how dangerous the observed effects are. "There's a 50-50 uncertainty as
to whether cell phones could possibly have any harmful effects," says
Lai. "So if it's a cause for concern, why not limit exposure to
children? I don't think Americans are less susceptible to radiation
The FDA says it has the authority to take action if wireless phones are
shown to emit hazardous levels of RF energy. The agency also says it
has urged the wireless industry to support needed research, design
phones to limit radiation exposure, and continue providing consumers
with the latest information on possible health effects from wireless
So far there has been no public clamor over the new services like
Disney's. Does this mean phones are safe for kids? Or is the U.S.
hooked and in collective denial? For now scientists concerned about
cell-phone safety say the only thing protecting kids from possible
danger is their parents.