Cancer Warning Adds Wrinkle to Parenting Debate

Article excerpt

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 unnecessary."

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 the airwaves.

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 still developing.

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 Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, was based on early, unpublished data and came despite numerous studies that haven't found a link between increased tumors and cell-phone use.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 children's entreaties.

"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. …