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Health Fears For The Mobile Phone Generation
Western Daily Press
May 12, 2000

After playing computer games and surfing the Internet, mobile phones are the latest craze for youngsters.

Already one in four of Britain’s 24 million mobile phone users are aged under 18, which means that more than a third of all youngsters has access to a mobile.

But if you thought the mobile phone craze couldn’t get any madder, brace yourselves: by 2002, the proportion of under-18s using this fashion accessory is projected to reach a staggering 70 per cent.

Now it appears this craze could hold particular dangers for children, according to a Government report published yesterday.

The concern over the use of mobile phones by children is nothing new, but yesterday’s report — which was prompted by ground-breaking Bristol research — is the first official statement that they can cause physiological changes.

Professor Sir William Stewart, who led the Government investigation, says that there is some preliminary evidence that emissions from mobile phones do cause “subtle biological changes”.

But he adds: “That does not mean — and I emphasise does not mean — that these effects lead to disease.

“But this is a new technology and we are recommending that a precautionary approach be adopted until more information becomes available.”

So where does this leave worried parents? Probably confused. The good news is that there is no evidence as yet of any general health threat to the population from mobile phones.

The bad news is that we still don’t know for sure whether they are totally safe. Although we are conducting one of this country’s biggest ever experiments (it’s called 24 million users), these phones have simply been around for too short a time for us to assess any long term effects.

However if health problems do emerge in the future, it is children who are most at risk.

According to the report, that’s because their skulls are thinner, allowing their brains to absorb more radiation. Also, because they’re starting to use mobiles at an early age, children will build up a longer lifetime of exposure.

Dr Gerard Hyland, a theoretical physicist at the University of Warwick, is an expert in the field of electromagnetic radiation. He is “truly alarmed about the unchecked spread of mobile phones, particularly among children”.

He points out that until the age of 13 or so, children’s brains can be very sensitive to radiation. “In addition, a child’s immune system is less able to cope when there is a bad reaction,” he says.

Even more worrying is the fact that the number of young people using mobiles is set to grow, as a whole new generation of phones, allowing e-mail and Internet access, appeal to the younger end of the market.

It was research by Bristol University’s Dr Alan Preece that prompted the inquiry. His study, published in April last year, revealed that mobiles caused part of the brain to heat up.

It was not clear whether this had a harmful or even a beneficial effect — but the fact that mobiles were shown to have an effect on brain function at all was enough to send shock waves through the industry.

So how can parents ensure their children are not put at risk?

The report recommends allowing youngsters to use mobile phones only for “emergencies”.

But how do you decide what constitutes an emergency — and once you’ve handed over the phone, how do you prevent your children from using it simply to chat to friends?

Sir William, who is chairman of Tayside University Hospitals NHS Trust, says this is a balance every parent must strike. He can see the benefit of children who might be out late at night having access to mobile phones for emergencies, but adds:

“The younger the child the more care should be taken about allowing them to use mobile phones.” says Sir William, who admits he would not want his grandchildren given “unfettered access” to them.

“The shortest time that a child needs for essential calls — that is the amount of time it should use.”

Unfortunately the inquiry team cannot be more specific about how many minutes a day a child should use a mobile phone because it depends on variables such as how the phone is held, the type of phone or whether it is hands free.

The lack of clear guidance will disappoint many parents, says NFPI chief executive Mary MacLeod. “Since there have been conflicting messages about the health risks of mobile phones many parents may not be in a position to make an informed judgment,” she says.

Frances McGlone, a senior researcher at the Family Policy Studies Centre, is just one parent to voice concern about policing children’s use of mobiles.

“My ten-year-old son’s friends all have a mobile and he wants one. My wife said no to him, but he has saved up 30 Coca Cola tokens from somewhere to get one,” she says.

“We said, there’s no way we’re going to pay the 30 or so to get the phone — the problem is he’s started to raise the money himself by washing cars etc and he’s got 10 already.”

She wants the Government to send out a strong message — “that mobiles should not be in schools, that they are not advisable and that there may be some danger to young people’s health”.

But Guy Fielding, a communications consultant, says that while the evidence over mobile phones is still uncertain, the Government is right not to press ahead with blanket bans: “At the moment, there’s not enough negative evidence to justify the Government legislating.”

Valerie Riches from the Family and Youth Concern agrees. She firmly believes that any decision to ban children’s use of mobiles should lie with the parents.

“What the Government should do in this case is make the information available to parents and leave them to decide.

“Parents want to give to their children but that sometimes means saying ‘no’.”

That might be possible for parents whose children don’t yet have mobiles. But what about the 250,000 under-15s in Britain who already do?

Unfortunately those parents must now either battle with their children to get the mobiles back, or gamble that the uncertainty over future health risks will be cleared up before too long.

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