In the Jeske household, the rules on cellphone use for the two tween boys are strict: The phones stay in their backpacks, turned off. They only use them if their parents are late picking them up from school – and only if they can’t find a land line.
If they have to leave the phones on for a callback, they never keep them in their pockets; they put them down somewhere away from their bodies. So far, the 12-year-old has used his twice.
“My children are educated on the non-safety of the cellphone,” explains Tammy Jeske, a nurse, speaking on a corded phone from her home in Victoria. (The family doesn’t have Wi-Fi or portable phones either.) “If you understand the risks, it’s not a great inconvenience.”
All these precautions may sound extreme, but last week, Health Canada released an advisory telling parents “to encourage their children under the age of 18 to limit their cellphone use,” responding to international concerns that, with high use, the radio-frequency energy – a form of electromagnetic radiation – emitted by cell phones could cause cancer.
The advisory, similar to ones issued in other countries, noted that a “small number” of studies (predominantly on adults) have shown a link, and that children are typically more sensitive to environmental toxins. “At present, the scientific evidence is far from conclusive and more research is required,” the advisory states.
Mobile phones are practically a required accessory for teenagers: There are more than 24 million cellphone users in Canada, in a population of 34 million, and the largest group, according to Decima Research, fall between ages of 13 and 24.
The Health Canada advisory is the just latest development in an ongoing debate over the potential risks of our ever-expanding wireless universe, a debate that has seen some schools shut down their wireless internet, and more parents like the Jeskes worrying about the long-term impact on their children’s health.
“This is an experiment,” Ms. Jeske says, “and we don’t know for certain what the outcomes will be.”
The uncertainty was echoed in the vagueness of the advisory. “What does ‘limit their use’ mean?” one Ottawa mother of a 16-year-old daughter asked. “Ten minutes a day, an hour a day?”
Some parents shrugged it off – saying the safety benefits of being able to track down your teen outweighed the health concerns. The risk is believed to be lower when the phone is held away from the head, which is reassuring since teenagers text more than they talk – but they text constantly, and the research on this use isn’t conclusive either.
“That will be something I will look at,” said Brian Aranas, a Calgary dad whose 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter have phones. “But when I think about all the other stuff kids do, I am more concerned that my son is going to get hurt skateboarding, or my daughter is going to fall off their horse.”
For Patti Bacchus, chairwoman of the Vancouver School Board, the issue is both personal and public: Texting is often the only way her kids can contact her when she’s stuck in a long meeting. “I joke to my colleagues that I am parenting by text messaging,” she says.
The board tries to balance health concerns against the benefits of digital technology. While a few Canadian schools have cut off their Wi-Fi, others, such as Vancouver’s Elise Roy, are expanding their use of iPads, and encouraging students to bring their own smart devices to class. (In August, Ontario’s elementary teaches voted down a motion that would prohibit Wi-Fi in classrooms.) “As a parent, there are so many things we get concerned about,” says Ms. Bacchus, whose kids have allergies, and often used their phones to check whether certain foods are safe. “What’s an appropriate level of precaution? Every parent struggles with that.”
Ultimately, says Jack Siemiatycki, an epidemiologist at the University of Montreal, parents have to decide the level of risk they can accept, since the current science can’t give them a definitive answer. Dr. Siemiatycki is a member of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the body that reported that cell phone use might pose a theoretical cancer risk.
In the small number of studies that found a link with cancer, he explains, it was only in people who talked at length on their cellphone every day, over a period of years. If your child is talking on their phone 30 minutes a day every day, he advises putting a limit on their use. “If it’s five minutes a day, to call and say, ‘I am at the grocery store picking up a popsicle,’ I really wouldn’t worry about that.”
As far as the Jeskes are concerned, the debate is settled. Their younger son appears to be especially sensitive to electromagnetic radiation; when they cut the Wi-Fi in their house, his recurring complaints of headaches and heart palpitations subsided almost immediately. The family uses a cable to connect to the Internet, and sleeps under mosquito-net-styled shielding, designed to block digital radio waves, partly because their home is not far from a cellphone tower.
For other concerned parents, such as Toronto mom and doctor Michelle Freedman, it’s more complicated. She’d rather her family didn’t have cellphones at all, though there’s no way, she concedes, she could get her iPhone-addicted husband, or BlackBerry-obsessed 16-year-old daughter to give up their habit. Taking it away from her, she says, would be “social suicide.” In addition to cancer, she worries about reports that carrying cell phones in pockets might affect her two sons’ fertility. “[My kids]tell me there’s no proof. But I say to them, ‘I don’t want you guys to be the proof, when you’re 40.”
“There’s such a contradiction between what I fear and what I let my kids do,” she says.
Perhaps there are more immediate concerns: Every morning, Dr. Freedman, passes four high schools on the way to work. She watches teenagers crossing the street while thumbing a text message, even tripping over construction pylons because they are so intent on their phones. If they get hit by a speeding car, she points out, cancer won’t be an issue.