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Your child's brain on technology: cell phones

How much do we know about the hazards of cell phones? Find out in part three of our ongoing series on technology and your child's brain.

By Hank Pellissier

Cell phones are synonymous with teenagers, and they carry risks: traffic accidents, quite emphatically; and, more debatably, brain tumors.

The causal connection between cell phones and brain tumors has been suggested for awhile, but it's a matter of dispute. A 2013 study by researchers in New Zealand warns that high cellphone use in young adolescence puts kids at increased risk of brain tumors due to microwave radiation exposure, and a Swedish study claims people who begin using cordless or mobile phones regularly before the age of 20 are at more than a fourfold increased risk of brain cancer.

But many other studies dismiss the danger. A 2013 Taiwanese report analyzed 10 years of data and did not find a connection between cell phone use and brain tumors in Taiwan. The American Cancer Institute's position is that, "Studies thus far have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain…” To be on the safe side, however, the Cancer Institute advises consumers to limit cell phone use to shorter conversations, or to use a hands-free device.

On the upside, texting has overtaken talking for smartphone-wielding tweens and teens. A 2012 Pew Research Center study found that 39 percent of teens talk on cell phones daily, compared with 75 percent who text on a daily basis. (And get this: the median use for older teen girls is a 100 texts a day; the median for older boys is a mere 50.)

Clear and present danger

Now for the downside when it comes to texting. There is far more evidence about the dangers of cell phone use — particularly texting while driving. You've likely heard this before but it's worth repeating and the evidence is clear: distracted driving kills. In 2009, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated nearly 6,000 distracted driver fatalities and 515,000 injuries in the United States alone

Teenagers are particularly at risk because of their still-developing ability to assess risk. Eleven percent of teens age 18 to 20 who survived a traffic accident admitted they were sending or receiving a text while driving, and 40 percent of all U.S. teens admitted they'd been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put passengers in danger. That's not all: a quarter of teens respond to a text message at least once every time they drive

A 2012 Australian study suggested that simple cell phone conversations may not represent a significant risk, but that texting does represent a significant risk, and a 2014 analysis of almost 700 crashes and near-crashes among novice drivers revealed that the risks were significantly higher if the drivers were dialing or reaching for the phone, or sending or receiving a text message.

There's a device for that

Do these facts fill you with fear? Luckily, there’s technology to keep our kids safe. Devices like Cellcontrol "ensures your teen stays focused on driving — not on their phone. ” The parent-friendly gizmo dismantles mobile phones in your car, according to the company website, because, “Your family doesn’t need to be a statistic.”

If you aren't worried because your darlings are still too young to drive, wake up! Child pedestrians are also endangered by cell phones. Kids texting while walking often wander absentmindedly into the street. A 2009 study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham that tested 10- to 11-year-olds in a “virtual pedestrian” environment discovered they were more likely to be distracted, and subsequently hit by oncoming vehicles, than adults.

Also in this series:

Child's brain and social mediaYour child's brain on technology: social media

Child's brain and video gamesYour child's brain on technology: video games

Child's brain and TVYour child's brain on technology: television

Child's brain and tabletYour child's brain on technology: tablets

Hank Pellissier is a freelance writer on education and brain development, and the author of Brighter Brains: 225 Ways to Elevate or Injure Intelligence. He is also a SAT and SSAT tutor and director of the Brighter Brains Institute.

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