By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
By HeartMD Institute Editor-In-Chief Marchann Sinatra Blake
Yes, cell phones are entertaining – a one stop shop for the internet and virtually instant communication with others. And, it’s ultra-convenient to “multi-task” on these attention -snatching devices while working, watching kids, or in a social setting. But – in the long run – will we regret the time spent on our phones?
Is Your Cell Phone Use an Etiquette No-No?
In 2002, Etiquette Expert and Author Jacqueline Whitmore deemed July to be National Cell Phone Courtesy Month. Whitmore suggests several basic, common-sense things you can do to be more courteous to the people around you, among them:
- keep your conversations private,
- turn your ringer off,
- don’t use your cell while driving (thank you!) and
- limit use so you can “be all there.”
I’m on board with all her suggestions, and want to expand a bit on the last one, especially as it relates to the little people in our lives.
Nothing Says “I Love You” More Than, “Hold on, I Just Have to Send this Email / Text…”
Whether you mean to or not, you send a message to the people you’re with when using your phone around them; specifically, that they are less interesting and less important than whatever’s on that phone. As a mother, I’m amazed to see so many parents and babysitters texting, talking or surfing the net on their phones while the babies or kids sit in strollers or play nearby.
Now look, I’m no stranger to needing some adult entertainment (and I don’t mean that kind) after several hours with my kids. Especially if I’ve got nothing but cartoon theme songs running through my head (there’s only so much Dora the Explorer an adult can take!). But there’s a difference between taking a 5-minute break to check email or read a news article, and spending the afternoon texting or on Facebook.
Then There’s the Cell Phone Safety Issue
As Editor-In-Chief of HeartMD Institute, I’ve spent the last 7 years helping my father get the word out about health, including how wireless radiation from cell phones and wi-fi may impact it. As a result, I’m quite wary of cell phones (wi-fi too)… I try as much as possible not to carry one on me unless it’s off, and to text or use the speakerphone function whenever possible. I try to avoid giving my kids my phone to play with, and when I do, I make sure it’s on airplane mode.
Problem is, cell phones emit radiofrequency (RF) radiation, which the World Health Organization (through the IARC) classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans in 2011. Since then, doctors and scientists like Devra Davis, PhD have been arguing that the classification should be bumped up from possibly to probably carcinogenic, based on available evidence:
“A number of studies have been published of experimental results showing that radiofrequency fields affect cellular repair and increase biomarkers associated with cancer risk…[providing] additional support, based on IARC criteria, for concluding that radiofrequency fields are probable human carcinogens; radiofrequency fields should now be classified Group 2A.”
Alarmingly, young children are the most vulnerable to carcinogens because their tissues are still developing, and the younger they are, the greater their vulnerability (fetuses are particularly at risk).
My kids are very young – 4 and 1 – and thankfully, haven’t yet asked for phones of their own (I’m dreading the inevitable days when they do). And I’m not going to lie… giving them my cell phone on occasion buys me the time I need to purchase something in a store, talk to the pediatrician, or even, at times, change a diaper. However, when it comes to cell phones and wi-fi, I fully embrace practicing what we preach at HeartMD: the precautionary principle, especially with children.
The precautionary principle is simply an approach to risk management. Basically, where risk is uncertain, you “err” on the side of caution. Since wireless radiation from cell phones and wi-fi has not been studied enough to deem it safe for long-term use by children (or adults), and I’d rather give my kids – not cell phones – the benefit of the doubt here.
Hence, when I do resort to distracting my kids with my phone, I make sure it’s on airplane mode; they still get some radiation just from the phone being on, but not from the transmission and receipt of signals, which is much stronger.
Tips for Safer Cell Phone Use
Suggesting that people give up cell phones is a totally unrealistic, even bad idea. You just can’t beat the convenience and usefulness of these little devices that have absolutely saturated our culture. But, as with so many other things in life, moderation is key.
Here are some simple things you can do to minimize the radiation you and your children are exposed to (without sacrificing the convenience and access you’ve grown accustomed to):
- When talking, use the speakerphone function – keep your phone away from your head, and as far away from your body as possible. Better yet, rest it on a surface as opposed to holding it in your hand. Use the speakerphone function when your kids talk to Grandma and Grandpa, etc.
- Keep your phone off your person (i.e. out of your pockets or bra) when it is on and receiving signals. Set your phone to airplane mode when not actively using it; this stops the phone from sending and receiving signals from cell phone towers & wi-fi routers (and exposing you to more radiation).
- Limit call and internet time as much as you can. Get wired – use landline and wired internet connections instead.
- Download and store as much as you can for your kids to play with so you can put the phone on airplane mode if and when you do give them your phone (or one of their own).
- Avoid using your phone when you have poor reception – it ends up producing even more radiation to try to receive signals. Same thing when you’re traveling in a car, bus or train, as the signal is never constant.
You can get more recommendations for safer cell phone use in Do Cell Phones and Wi-Fi Pose Health Risks for Children?
Do as I Say Not as I Do…
Kids will often do what we do. Why give them the idea that being on a cell phone all the time is what they should aspire for (consciously or unconsciously)? And, considering the possible health consequences, would you allow them unlimited use? Some behavior, of course – like talking or texting on a cell phone when driving – is less model than other behavior. Still, it may get really annoying (and make you feel sad) the day your kids are so wrapped up with their phones that they ignore old mom and dad.
A Commitment to Being Present
When I was pregnant, I got tons of advice. Hands down, what just about everyone said was:
“Enjoy every moment of it… they grow up so fast.”
I try to remind myself of this during the trying moments and every day during all the other great moments. Is what’s on the internet or in that text or on that call really more important than being truly present with my kids? Is it really worth more than the joy and pleasure of truly connecting with them and laughing, playing, being ridiculous? For me, it’s especially hard not to read or send texts when with my kids; sometimes it’s (seemingly) unavoidable, but I want to commit to being present as often as I can. You can never get that time back.
A Commitment to Yourself
Limiting cell phone use is not just about being more present with and polite to the people around you, it can also be about you. By turning it off during given times, you can:
- Allow yourself to have a private life, to be “unavailable,” to have “me time.” Not be accessible socially or for work all the time.
- Relax more without interruption or anticipation of new messaging. If what you’re doing isn’t all that stimulating (as watching the kids on the playground can be), take the opportunity to just breathe in and out and focus on that… it’s easy mind-body medicine and can help you manage stress.
- Find more satisfaction in what you’re doing / experiencing – It’s a lot easier to do when you’re not dividing your time between your activity and your distraction, and unconsciously comparing them.
- Build better relationships by giving the people you’re actually with your full attention.
Life moves fast. I know I don’t want to look back in 20 years and wish I had been more present with my family and friends, instead of being in other, far-off places.
About Marchann Sinatra Blake
- Quiz: Test your cell phone etiquette during National Cell Phone Courtesy Month. Wtop.com, July 14, 2014 at http://wtop.com/news/2014/07/quiz-test-your-cellphone-etiquette-during-national-cellphone-courtesy-month/
- World Health Organization: International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Press Release: IARC Classifies Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Fields as Possibly Carcinogenic to Humans, May 31, 2011.
- Morgan, L. L., Miller, A. B., Sasco, A., Davis, D. L.”Mobile phone radiation causes brain tumors and should be classified as a probable human carcinogen (2A) (Review)”. International Journal of Oncology 46.5 (2015): 1865-1871. https://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/46/5/1865
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