Cell Phones: Why These Devices Could Be Hazardous to Kids’ Health

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It can’t hurt to establish some basic ground rules when it comes to allowing your kids screen time on any device.

Common sense tells us that kids need to have limits while using cell phones, tablets and other mobile devices. But new research raises the question that it’s more than just their attention span that may be compromised. A recent animal study by the U.S. National Toxicology Program found exposure to wireless radiation significantly increased the rate of certain highly malignant cancers.

The study exposed rats to radiofrequency radiation for nine hours a day for two years, beginning in utero, then compared these animals to a group that was not exposed. Some of the male rodents in the test group developed cancerous tumors in the heart and brain. That was enough for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to issue new guidelines that reiterated the importance of limiting cell phone use by children and teens. The Academy notes that “exposures can be reduced by encouraging children to use text messaging when possible, make only short and essential calls on cellular phones, use hands free kits and wired headsets and maintain the cellular phone an inch or more away from the head.”

Before you ban devices in your house entirely, note that this study was done on mice, not humans, and with extremely high levels of exposure. “The amount of radiation was a much higher dosage than the average person would receive,” notes Michael McKenna, M.D., a pediatrician at Indiana University Health. “Plus, the study was on animals, not humans, which doesn’t always translate.” Other research on cell phones and cancer risk among humans has reported mixed results, he adds. But in the meantime, he notes, it can’t hurt to establish some basic ground rules when it comes to allowing your kids screen time on any device. Following are some guidelines from the AAP and other agencies.

  • Use text messaging when possible, and keep cell phones in speaker mode or use hands-free options.
  • When talking on the phone, try to keep it an inch or more away from your head. That’s especially true for children, who have thinner skulls which can absorb more radiation.
  • Avoid carrying your phone against your body (such as in a pocket or against your chest) when possible. “Cell phone manufacturers can't guarantee that the amount of radiation you're absorbing will be at a safe level,” according to the AAP guidelines.
  • Watch your phone’s signal strength. “The weaker your cell signal, the harder your phone has to work and the more radiation it gives off,” notes the AAP guidelines.
  • Don’t talk or text on the phone while driving. According to Distraction.gov, 3,179 people were killed in 2014 and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.
  • Set limits. The AAP recommends children younger than 18 months avoid use of all screen media other than video chatting; from 18-24 months, choose high-quality programming and make sure you’re watching it with your child. For children ages 2-5 limit screen use to one hour per day of high quality programs, watched with your child.
  • For children 6 and older, place consistent limits on all media—and make sure it’s not interfering with healthy behaviors like getting enough sleep, being physically active and spending time with friends and family, notes Dr. McKenna.

-- By Alyssa Shaffer

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