Cell phones and children’s health

Profiles in Norwegian science

cell phones

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Cell phones are a valuable learning tool and can even save lives, but how much of them is a good thing when it comes to children?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

“Call me anytime”—an easy mantra to repeat unthinkingly, given the powerful computers we hold in our hands. We name them “phones” and they provide a huge array of functions, most prominently many modes of unceasing connection to the world and to each other. Is this good for children? Norwegian science offers some answers.

A field called “Digital Childhoods”—including researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Oslo Metropolitan University, University of Oslo, and University of Stavanger—follows a long-term quest to examine growing up in the digital age. Cell phones are ubiquitous across Norway, often under the assumption that everyone must use them for payment, reading, tickets, and identity verification.

Concerns are well-documented: Identity theft, bank fraud, and location tracking. Mental health and socialization must be watched closely and carefully, especially during formative years and notably for addictive behavior. Cyberbullying and cyberharassment grind down children who are also exposed to conspiracists fabricating and spreading misinformation and disinformation. Free, phone-compatible artificial intelligence programs complete homework.

Vying for online attention and peer validation leads to instantly regrettable social-media postings in addition to lethal “challenges” and hoaxes. Young children might not understand the dangers, while teenagers can deliberately seek risky actions.

On the flip side (for when phones used to flip open), cell phones enhance education, social skills, and mental health. Instant access to information and people anywhere opens minds, helps learn and practice languages, can simulate travel without the costs, and introduces new cultures and perspectives. Classroom exercises tailored to each student can offer gaming and training—advanced, up-to-date fun!—far beyond chalkboard or whiteboard capabilities.

Aside from thumb strains, could all this phone use physically harm children?

Some recent and older studies looked for links in Norway between cell phone use and brain tumors in children. In line with regular findings from many other countries, no significant risk could be confirmed. Scientists are understandably cautious. Not all factors could ever be considered, the cancer type and measurements of cell phone use must be highly specific, and occasional disagreement appears in discussions.

Perhaps cell phones have zero effect or perhaps their (over)use compounds or exacerbates medical risks. The technology shifts quickly, from the clunky bricks pressed to our ears to the sleekness resting in our pockets or strapped to our arms with wired or wireless earbuds. Changes to the hardware, networks, and use pattern affect the exposure baseline that children and others might have.

And how many children’s lives have been saved by cell phones? Whether calls to police when threatened, a helpline when suicidal, or a caregiver when lost, cell phones can decrease health risks for children. Location tracking during an emergency call speeds up response. Livestreaming to the responders a fire, crash, or injury means they prepare en route.

Overreliance, though, can cost lives. Phones might be out of battery, far from a signal, stolen, lost, or inaccessible, meaning that help is not merely a rapid dial away.

Locations without cell phone coverage are diminishing. Next year, the European Union expects airlines to permit full use of cell phones during commercial flights. Norway, despite not being in the European Union, should follow suit.

Implications ripple far beyond our conversations annoying fellow passengers. During the Jan. 15, 2023, plane crash in Pokhara, Nepal, one passenger inadvertently livestreamed his own death. A generation ago, calls came from hijacked aircraft on Sept. 11, 2001.

Private companies plan to launch thousands of satellites into low-Earth orbit to provide fast internet to anyone’s phone with an unobstructed view of the sky. How long until we have it indoors, in deep-sea submarines, and while exploring caves?

Science-fiction foreshadows: No longer will phones be an external device, instead they will be integrated into our bodies.

We might hold our hand up to our face, speaking into our pinky finger and listening through our thumb. It could be hands-free, with a microphone in our throat, the receiver implanted into our ear, and connecting through brain commands. When might chips communicate brain to brain to exchange thoughts while sensing what the other person experiences?

New perils emerge. Could hacking read our thoughts? Are there medical dangers from non-stop exposure to chips over years, particularly for children as their bodies develop? What could be the psychological implications of never being alone? As we know from the internet today, it does not mean avoiding loneliness.

The research agenda is as never-ending as communication, hoping that scientists offer recommendations to avoid problems before they become prevalent. Do you have ideas to investigate about cell phones, children, and health? Just call me anytime.

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.