Lentis/Children and Cell Phones
Cell phones may have started out as a gadget for adults, but they have now become a necessary item for the entire family. In 2004, 45% of children younger than 18 years old owned a phone; but by 2010, that percentage rose to 75%. Today, children as young as seven years old are more likely to own a cell phone than a book. This dramatic increase in cell phone use by children raises a whole new set of concerns.
On April 3, 1973, Martin Cooper, a manager for Motorola, made the first cellular phone call from the streets of NYC to his rivals at Bell Labs. The phone he used was a prototype of the Motorola DynaTAC, which was 9 inches tall, weighed 2 1/2 lbs, contained 30 circuit boards, had 35 minutes of talk time, and required 10 hours to fully recharge.
In the thirty-eight years since that first call, there has been a dramatic evolution of the cell phone. Since the first commercial release of cell phones in the early 80s, phones have become smaller, more affordable, and more capable. While cell phones and their growing capabilities have many benefits, their use also carries some risk.
Social Connection vs. Social Isolation
Each new cell phone model is released with an intended use in mind. These purposes include basic communication (texting or calling), pictures or videos, calendar applications, and Internet connection. The most recent cell phone application is the iPhone 4 Siri in which a user cannot only communicate with others, but can also communicate with his or her phone by talking directly to it.
Because most adults did not grow up using cell phones, they use this techology as a means for communication. But when cell phones are put into the hands of children, the use can quickly extend beyond those originally intended.
E. Elkind proposed adolescent egocentrism, a psychological theory about the social interactions of adolescents. During this developmental stage, adolescents are known to be self-conscious and have extremely low self esteem, and therefore, have a need to feel included, accepted by peers, and connected. The feeling of belonging that many teenagers strive for has been found in the security of a cell phone. Cell phones give children the ability to bond with others, form a private social life, overcome feelings of awkwardness by communicating indirectly, and therefore, it provides a symbol of acceptance that most teenagers struggle to find. While walking down a sidewalk full of strangers, a cell phone is often seen as a social lifeline to many teenagers in today’s socially isolated society.
Although cell phones have fulfilled the need for children to be connected, overuse of this technology can result in social alienation. Because children have the ability to be in constant contact with people from different cities, states, and even countries, they can involuntarily alienate themselves from their current, social surroundings.
Social Development Alterations
The overuse of cell phones by children can stunt their social development by not allowing for the development of skills such as the ability to:
- Summarize: Because texting allows children time to think before they respond, the ability to express opinions in a clear and concise manner is harmed.
- Read social cues: Cell phone dependent children often isolate themselves in social situations and therefore never develop the ability to read social cues, which is detrimental to future educational or professional environments.
- Be aware of social surroundings: For example, children crossing a street while using a cell phone are less likely to look both ways, and are therefore 43% more likely to be struck by a passing car.
Cell Phone Dependency
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The availability of cell phones to children creates a cause for a childhood addiction. Cell phone dependency is characterized by extreme extraversion, neuroticism, and low self-esteem. Today, an extraverted personality is a positive attribute, but when it is extreme, a person has an obsessive need to be with or in communication with a person at all times. Teenagers already have a stereotypically low self-esteem, so those that are dependent on a cell phone for communication will have greater difficulty overcoming this barrier. 
Parents' Control v.s. Children's Independence
Cell phones produce the conflicting results of giving parents more control and giving children more independence. While the appeal of cell phones includes child safety, cell phones can often be dangerous to own.
Cell Phone's Enable Parental Control
Parents may feel that their child is safer carrying a phone. Cell phones give parents peace of mind since it provides instant connectivity. Parents can contact their children to determine their whereabouts and activities. Especially for children far away from home or with divorced parents, the cell phone allows parents to stay involved in their child's life.
A phone can be used to teach children responsibility. They will learn to care for their phone, avoid losing it, and stay within their plan limits. At a young age they will learn about budgets and social etiquette.
Parents often use cell phones as a means to discipline their children. Sixty-two percent of parents take phones away as punishment, and 52% of parents limit the time of day their children may use their phone . Parents can also give their children boundaries such as to call them whenever they change locations. The rules parents establish regarding cell phones may improve a child's behavior.
In a 2009 survey, 64% of parents look at the contents of their child’s phone, and 48% of parents use phones to monitor their child's location . There are many pieces of software available that parents can buy to monitor their child’s cell phone activity such as iWonder Surf and Webwatcher Mobile. To activate and view activity, a parent has to secretly install the software on their child’s phone and log onto their online account. They can view GPS location, text messages, and call information. Parents can even disable web access during school hours.
Cell Phones Enable Children's Independence
Frequently cell phones have the opposite result of giving children more freedom, which can expose them to serious risks. With instant connectivity possible, children today are more likely to be able to leave home. The cell phone also enables children to lie about where they are and what they are doing.
By having more independence, children may be more vulnerable to certain dangers such as sexting. Sexting is the sending of sexually explicit messages or photographs between phones. Vanessa Hudgens and Miley Cyrus are examples of young celebrity role models who had nude text messages leaked to the public. Sexting is becoming increasing popular among middle school and high school students. The coming of age mistakes and immaturity are becoming even more visible with cell phone technology. Over 15% of 12-17 year olds claim they have received nude photos from text messages . These actions can lead to serious consequences such as embarrassment, misdemeanors, felonies, and even child pornography charges.
Cells allow a new way for children to be bullied. Over 1 in 5 teens have been cyber-bullied. Cyber-bulling can lead to low self-esteem, depression, suicide, violence and school failure.
Cell phones also open up children to communication with predators. Predators not only target children through texting, but also through webcams, the internet, and social networking sites available on many phones. Over 1 in 7 children have been propositioned online for sex from a predator .
Helpful in Emergency vs. Health Emergency
Helpful in Emergency
Cell phones are extremely convenient in emergencies. In most situations in which emergency help is needed, people can now pull out their cell phones to dial 911 or access information quickly. In large-scale emergencies, parents can contact their children to assure they are safe, and schools can send alerts to the entire student body. This is an overwhelmingly positive benefit to the widespread use of mobile phones. In these cases, it could be argued that cell phones save lives. However, some would say the negative health side effects outweigh the benefits of being able to make an emergency call.
Cell phones are known to generate electromagnetic fields (EMFs). This is how they communicate with cell towers and why we can communicate almost everywhere. The problem is that phones emit these electromagnetic waves in all directions, including into our bodies. A 1996 study explored the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), the rate of energy absorption, in models of a human adult brain, a 10 year old brain, and a 5 year old brain during cell phone use. Their study showed notably higher SAR's in a 10 year old than an adult, and even higher SAR's in a 5 year old. These results prove that EMFs penetrate deeper into children’s brains than adults’ brains and contribute to the idea that cell phones may be more harmful to children than to adults. This increased susceptibility to EMF penetration is attributed to the fact that children have smaller brains and softer brain tissue than adults.
In response to the fears that cell phones are causing brain cancer, many researchers have tried to determine whether cell phones (or the electromagnetic radiation they emit) are actually causing brain cancer. In the first study focusing specifically on children, Aydin et al. looked specifically at children with brain cancer. The group looked at 352 children (7-19 years old) from Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland that had been diagnosed with a brain tumor between 2004 and 2008. Their cell phone usage times were estimated based on interviews and examination of their phone records. Despite fears, they found no evidence tying regular cell phone use to a higher risk of cancer in children.
These conclusions regarding cell phones and brain cancer need to be qualified. Due to the recent increased use of cell phones, especially among children, it is not yet possible to evaluate their long term impact on health. Unfortunately, experts estimate that symptoms may not appear until 15 to 35 years after initial use; therefore, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove causation at this time.
Some groups, such as the International Parenting Association, take this qualification to the extreme and insist that cell phones will harm children and should never be used. Others would site more definitive research supporting the contrary, such as a paper from the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that states: “there is no known biologically plausible mechanism by which nonionizing radio waves of low energy can disrupt DNA and lead to cancer” .
We can't currently prove causation, but we also can't prove non-effect. With no definitive support for either side and the possibility of years before such support arrives, we must ask ourselves and important question: Should we deprive ourselves (and our children) from the benefits of cell phones because of potential risks to our health?
The Generalizable Lesson
Cell phones were initally created to socially connect our society, improve safety, and be helpful in health emergency situations. But with these benefits have come consequences, especially for the growing number of children with cell phones. Some consequences include cell phone dependency, vulnerability to dangerous people, and potentially harmful radiation. This case can be broadened to more generalizable lessons. As seen from the examples above, technology may be created with certain intended purposes, but those purposes can change and evolve once the technology is put into the hands of a user. Furthermore, while there may be many benefits associated with a new technology, there may also be unforeseen consequences of its widespread use.
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