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Experts chime in on cell phones for kids

Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – As the clamor for a cell phone moves toward No. 1 on every middle-schooler’s birthday wish list, educators, scientists and school safety organizations are hoping parents will think twice before giving in.

How young is too young to own a cell phone? These experts say it’s not so much a matter of when a child should be given a cell phone, but if.

The first question to consider, says Joe Joss, assistant principal of Kamiakin Junior High in Kirkland, is whether the phone is truly necessary. Any student at his school can make a phone call during the day by just walking into the office and asking to use the phone.

Students are banned from using cell phones during the school day – even during breaks or the lunch hour – and phones are taken away from rule breakers, even when the caller is mom or dad.

Joss said his school’s policy is similar to those at other middle schools, but constantly changing technology means policies must flow with the changes.

After school, until the office is closed, students can use a school phone to call parents for rides, but they may not find a pay phone to use at an off-campus, after-school activity, said Joss, and that’s the reason most parents give for wanting their children to have a cell phone.

But it’s not the reason most phones are being used.

Students are sending instant messages to their friends to make plans for after-school activities – plans their parents may not be aware of. They’re calling people their parents may not want them to call. And some students are using their phones to cheat on tests.

“Students make connections that parents hope they aren’t making during the day,” Joss said.

His advice to parents: Be very aware of what your son or daughter is using the phone for. Check your phone bill and make note of the numbers your children are calling.

“You have to be vigilant,” Joss said.

The other common reason a parent gives for getting a cell phone for a child is for safety during emergency situations, like the Columbine shooting or the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. An Ohio-based consulting firm challenges that idea.

In a 2002 national survey of school security guards, National School Safety and Security Services found that about 68 percent of school-based officers believe that student use of cell phones during an emergency would detract from safety.

The report said student cell phone use could overload the telephone system during a crisis, “hamper rumor control,” encourage more parents to come to school and get in the way of official evacuations, and could even potentially detonate a real bomb if one is on campus.

Cell phones can be a threat to child safety in another, more personal way, according to medical researchers.

Henry Lai, a research professor in bioengineering at the University of Washington, said researchers have known for more than 10 years that the radiation emitted from cell phones may damage DNA and cause benign brain tumors.

“We don’t know very much about the health effects of cell phone use on kids, but there are speculations,” Lai said.

Lai said he was concerned about the impact on children because young skulls are thinner and the growing brain may be more susceptible to radiation. He also noted that because brain tumors usually take 30 to 40 years to develop, children who use cell phones from their teen years onward would have a longer period of time to see a cumulative impact.

The evolution of cell phones from something cool to a common way to access all kinds of information could change many parents’ and school officials’ minds concerning their value, one UW professor speculated.

Phil Bell, assistant professor of educational psychology, said American middle-schoolers are actually behind the curve on cell phone use. Their counterparts in Europe and Japan report much heavier usage and for a greater variety of reasons.

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