Cancer Warning Adds
Wrinkle to Parenting Debate
July 28, 2008
NEW YORK (AP) -- When Amy Morris' twin boys, then 11,
went on an academic trip to Washington last year, she
agreed to give them cell phones at the program's
request. But this summer she was dismayed to learn that
girls at her 8-year-old daughter's day camp were using
cell phones they'd taken along in their backpacks.
"We were outraged," says the Connecticut mother, who
adds that the camp didn't know. "These girls think it's
a cute game. But it's inappropriate, and it's
It's a signature parenting dilemma of the wireless age:
Should kids have cell phones? And how old is old enough?
It pits our understandable desire to keep tabs on our
offspring ? not to mention make them happy ? against the
instinctive feeling that it's simply, well, wrong for
youngsters to spend their time chatting and texting over
Now, there's further ammunition for Morris and other
reluctant parents like her to stand firm: The warning
last week by the head of a prominent cancer research
institute to his faculty and staff. Limit cell phone
use, he said, because of the possible cancer risk ?
especially when it comes to children, whose brains are
The warning from Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of
the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, was based
on early, unpublished data and came despite numerous
studies that haven't found a link between increased
tumors and cell phone use. But it's struck a nerve among
parents who already have other reasons to resist their
"Now we hear about this possible medical risk," says
Marybeth Hicks, an author, columnist and mother of four.
"I couldn't possibly know if it's real or not. But I
know that it's probably not necessary for most children
to have a cell phone."
To her, "it's part of this whole rush to adulthood ?
Hello Kitty backpacks for third-graders have cell phone
pockets in them! Marketers have skillfully created a
groundswell of begging among kids ? and we all know that
begging can work."
Hicks, whose book "Bringing Up Geeks: How to Protect
Your Kid's Childhood in a Grow-Up-Too-Fast World," is
about just such problems, has her own personal
experience with persistent children.
"My 10-year-old daughter thinks she's deprived," says
Hicks. "She's been saying she's the only one at school
without a phone, and it's actually getting to be true."
And her son, she says, was the only kid in his 8th-grade
class without a phone. (He just got one, right before
freshman year in high school.)
Hicks, who lives in East Lansing, Mich., is aware that
some parents feel cell phones are an essential security
tool for their kids. But, she says, "I always know where
my kids are. A cell phone is a tool to negotiate the
world once you have the responsibility to be out in the
world on your own."
Morris, of Weston, Conn., has decided that for her own
kids, middle school is about the right time. "My boys
are starting to walk home alone sometimes," she says. "I
want them to have a phone." Being boys, though, they
tend to forget the darned things all the time ?
especially in situations when they actually need them.
So far, Morris has avoided giving one to her younger
child, she says, not an easy thing in a society where
kids, especially girls, are so sensitive to social
pressures. "I think a lot of parents in this country
just give in," she says. She's especially concerned
about the rampant text messaging among the younger set.
Statistics from the Pew Research Center show just how
deeply ingrained in our daily lives cell phones have
become: Fully 78 percent of all adults own them,
including 86 percent of 18-29 year-olds and 55 percent
of Americans 65 and older. Pew doesn't compile
statistics on those under 18.
Text messaging, on the other hand, is the province of
the young: 74 percent of 18-29 year-olds do it but only
6 percent of the 65-plus crowd.
It's harder to gauge the tween set (usually defined as
between 9 and 13) but it's telling that in 2004, 21
percent of those aged 8 to 10 and 36 percent of the 11
to 14 group had phones, according to the Kaiser Family
Foundation ? a number sure to have ballooned since then.
Should the latest medical news cause huge concern among
parents who HAVE given in? "If you've got good reasons
for them to have it, I'd go ahead," says Frank Barnes, a
professor who chaired a recent report on the subject.
However, he added, "they've probably got other things
they should be doing."
As for whether it's a health hazard, Barnes, who teaches
electrical and computer engineering at the University of
Colorado at Boulder, said it's more a question of "How
do you deal with the unknown? We just don't have the
Ultimately, parents have to make their own rules ? but
that's difficult when the social pressure is so strong,
notes Lisa Bain, executive editor of Parenting magazine.
"The age is creeping down," she says. "Girls tend to get
them younger. It's become a status symbol ? it makes
them feel grown up."
Bain can see both sides of the argument. Parents really
need to set limits, she says, especially because so many
phones these days are also cameras and have Web access.
On the other hand, she said, the first time she dropped
her middle-school aged daughter off at the mall, "I
thought, thank God she has a cell phone."
Of the recent medical warning, Bain says: "So many scary
studies come out. This will give some parents second
thoughts, and other parents ammunition. But for the vast
majority, it's not going to mean a lot."
After all, says Bain, "It's like standing up against a