Are Kids at Greater Risk?

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Cell phones are about the coolest accessory in a preteen's pocket. But are kids who talk on cells taking more risks than adults? A study by British physicians and scientists suggests that they are. Last year's report by the Stewart Commission, a panel of experts convened by the British government to look into cell-phone use, found no direct indication that cell phones are harmful to kids. But the group uncovered enough evidence to urge that children be discouraged from using cell phones and that wireless companies stop marketing them specifically to kids.

Since children's skulls are thinner than those of adults, and their brains smaller, radiation emitted from cell phones can more easily penetrate their heads. A child's brain, a mass of tissue alive with electrochemical activity, is still developing and is thus extremely sensitive to outside interference. Imagine the static you hear in your car radio as you drive past a power line. Similarly, microwaves from cell phones can affect youngsters' brain rhythms. As for whether such microwaves ultimately do the same kind of harm to adults, that remains much in dispute.

A separate report published in November in Lancet, the British medical journal, said that children are more at risk than adults to suffer "memory loss, sleeping disorder and headaches" from using mobile phones. About 10 million children in the U.S. from ages 10 to 19, or 25% of those in that age group, own a wireless phone, according to the Yankee Group, a Boston-based technology-research firm. Think that's high? The proportion is far greater in other count-ries. In Germany, for instance, the figure is 30%; in Finland, 90%.

Dangerous or not, cell phones have taken off, especially in sales to kids. Within four years, experts predict, 2 out of 3 in the 10-to-19 age group in the U.S. will have their own cell phone. Children want them because they allow for independence and sociability. Parents like the phones because the gadgets allow them to keep tabs on their offspring.

Cell-phone companies have been marketing heavily to children. They offer phones in assorted bright colors, with antennas that glitter like diamonds and cover designs of zebras, basketball themes and well-known cartoon figures like Minnie and Mickey.

But two months ago, Disney, citing safety concerns, canceled its licensing deal with AT&T, which used Disney characters to help sell wireless-phone plans. The British government has called for cell phones to carry health warnings not unlike those placed on cigarette packs. So parents take note: giving cell phones to children may not be the wisest of calls.