Friday, May 27, 2011

Mobile Phone Dilemma

A new report from the Committee on the Environment, Agriculture and Local and Regional Affairs of the Council of Europe, an influential body representing 47 European countries, has raised significant concerns about the safety of cell phone use among children and teens.

The committee urged immediate action to ban all mobile phones and wireless networks in schools and to set thresholds for levels of microwaves emitted by mobile phones. The Committee noted that "waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case in the past with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco." The report also raised concerns about such other common items as baby monitors and wireless internet networks. It makes clear that although "safe" exposure levels exist at the present time, preliminary research indicates that levels below these current thresholds have the potential for hazardous biologic impacts on humans, particularly among children.

Even assuming that parents can or would limit cell phone use by their children, Wi-Fi networks are ubiquitous, not just in schools, but in office buildings, train stations, buses, and parks, to name just a few locations. Here at The Yellin Center, we have a wireless network for both our staff and visitors and have no plans at the present time to disable it. But, as the technology we use every day becomes more sophisticated, all of us, especially parents and those working with children, need to stay on top the latest research on the long-term impact of this technology.

This alarming report adds one more dimension to a very practical issue that parents and schools have been grappling with for some time -- cell phone use by students. Most schools now ban cell phone use in their buildings, but more extensive bans, such as the one in New York City that bans students from having a cell phone on their person when they enter school, even if it is kept in a bag or their locker during the school day, raise some practical concerns for students, parents, and teachers.

As one New York City high school teacher explained to us, "I am really of two minds about the ban on phones. As a teacher, I know that even if the phones were in their backpacks, students would be using them during class and they would be a constant distraction. Teaching in a cell phone free environment is definitely the way to go. But my students come from all over the city, some traveling by bus or subway. I worry about them when they leave the building and I know their parents want to be able to monitor them as they travel to and from school. So the convenience store on the corner has set up a system to allow student to check their phones for $1 per day. That's $5 a week to allow the students to travel safely, and that's money my kids really can't afford. There has got to be a better system."

Photo used under Creative Commons by Dru Bloomfield

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