A Phone Safe Enough For The Kids?
This month, Walt Disney Co. (DIS )
is launching Disney Mobile, a cell-phone service aimed squarely at kids and
their parents. Children will be able to download exclusive Disney content such
as games, ringtones, and cool wallpaper for their screens. The entertainment
giant is hoping that moms and dads will want this new electronic tether for
their children, which includes such security features as a global positioning
system that keeps tabs on kids' locations and the ability to control cell-phone
use from a PC.
The launch represents a dramatic about-face from the fall of 2000, when Disney
abandoned plans to put Mickey and Minnie on Nokia Corp. (NOK ) cell-phone
covers. The company retreated after a public outcry erupted over the question of
whether mobile phones posed a health hazard, particularly to children. The big
fear was that cell phones could one day be proven to cause cancer or other
neurological disorders. The issue was controversial enough that Disney rescinded
the licensing scheme, citing uncertainty about health risks. A Disney spokesman
said at the time that it wouldn't proceed with a new plan until "there was
reliable scientific evidence establishing the absence of any such link."
So what has changed? Actually, not much. The Disney Mobile Web site shows
Mickey, Alice in Wonderland, and other beloved characters happily jumping out of
a cell-phone screen. Safety concerns "really [haven't] been an issue here in the
U.S. for quite some time now," says Disney Mobile spokesperson Anthony Sprauve.
He added that the Food & Drug Administration has repeatedly stated that there is
no concrete data showing any danger from cell phones. "Disney is relying on the
In some parts of the scientific community and in several European countries,
though, the question of whether cell phones are safe, especially when it comes
to kids, has yet to be answered. Britain's advisory body on radiological
hazards, the Health Protection Agency, has issued precautionary advice urging
parents to limit their kids' use of cell phones. The HPA recommends that younger
children use cell phones only for essential purposes.
"NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE"
While there is no definitive proof of health consequences from cell-phone
radiation beaming at young skulls, there is a scientific debate on the issue.
"The agency's position is precautionary because of the genuine uncertainties
that come with the rapid introduction of any new technology," says Dr. Mike
Clark, scientific spokesman for the HPA. "The fact that younger and younger
children were using them certainly worried us." Clark says the agency's official
line is that it would be wrong for the industry to market phones directly to
children. Cell-phone companies, Clark says, have honored that position in
The FDA, for its part, says there's no available scientific evidence of health
problems associated with using wireless phones. But it also notes that "there is
no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe." Adds Louis Slesin,
publisher of Microwave News, a journal that has tracked the issue for 25 years:
"There is plenty of data showing that we may have a serious problem on our
hands, but at this point no one really knows for sure."
Essentially, then, the U.S. offers no precautionary guidelines. So companies are
preparing to go after what analysts say is the next gold mine: kids, even those
as young as 5. Last year, Cingular Wireless (T ) launched the brightly colored
Firefly, and Verizon Wireless put out a toylike four-button phone called Migo.
On June 12, Verizon will announce a safety service for the Migo called Chaperone
-- part baby-sitter, part Big Brother. One feature notifies parents when their
child has crossed a preprogrammed boundary, such as a schoolyard.
Cingular declined to comment on the health safety concern, saying that the real
issue was kids' appropriate use of phones. Verizon said the company has come to
the conclusion that there appears to be "no scientific evidence...that points to
negative health effects to people, including children, who use mobile phones."
For years, science has been divided over the effects of radio-frequency (RF)
energy emitted by wireless phones. We have long lived with radiation, but what's
different now is that the tiny devices have never been so close to our heads for
so many hours of the day. Researchers and doctors worry that children could be
more vulnerable to exposure from cell phones given their thinner skulls and
still-developing brains. Some studies, the FDA says, have suggested that there
may be biological effects, "but such findings have not been confirmed by
An independent analysis of all existing studies done on cell phones is itself
divided. Dr. Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at the University
of Washington in Seattle, looked at the 319 laboratory or clinical studies
conducted on cell phones worldwide and found that 56% have shown a biological
effect in cells or animals exposed to RF radiation, while 44% have not -- though
there is also controversy over how dangerous the observed effects are. "There's
a 50-50 uncertainty as to whether cell phones could possibly have any harmful
effects," says Lai. "So if it's a cause for concern, why not limit exposure to
children? I don't think Americans are less susceptible to radiation than
The FDA says it has the authority to take action if wireless phones are shown to
emit hazardous levels of RF energy. The agency also says it has urged the
wireless industry to support needed research, design phones to limit radiation
exposure, and continue providing consumers with the latest information on
possible health effects from wireless phones.
So far there has been no public clamor over the new services like Disney's. Does
this mean phones are safe for kids? Or is the U.S. hooked and in collective
denial? For now scientists concerned about cell-phone safety say the only thing
protecting kids from possible danger is their parents.