Monday, October 16, 2006

Disney's cellphones for kids

USAToday recently reviewed Disney's new cellphones for kids ad campaign. The ads, which are available for viewing and download here, are aimed at parents and focus primarily on the so-called "safety" features of the phones--GPS locator systems, limited air time, and parental control over calls and features. Now that a third of 11-14 year-olds have their own cell, the market is opening for the 6-10 year-old crowd (according to the Yankee Group, cell phone use among the 8-12 group is expected to double in the next 4 years). The privacy and surveillance issues abound, but so do more immediate issues about the design and technology of the phones themselves.

I'm going to be presenting a brief overview of Langdon Winner's famous article Do Artifacts Have Politics? in tomorrow's Communication Technology (cmns 815) seminar, and thought I'd talk a little about kids' phones as an example of a "political" technology (since that will be the topic of my course paper this semester). In researching the Migo phone, I was intrigued to find the following blurb in the Parents' User Guide:
The available scientific evidence does not show that any health problems are associated with using wireless phones. There is no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe. [...] Many studies of low level RF exposures have not found any biological effects. Some studies have suggested that some biological effects may occur, but such findings have not been confirmed by additional research. In some cases, other researchers have had difficulty in reproducing those studies, or in determining the reasons for inconsistent results.

In terms of the research that has been done, the guide includes the following well-"spinned" summary:
The research done thus far has produced conflicting results, and many studies have suffered from flaws in their research methods. Animal experiments investigating the effects of radiofrequency energy (RF) exposures characteristic of wireless phones have yielded conflicting results that often cannot be repeated in other laboratories. A few animal studies, however, have suggested that low levels of RF could accelerate the development of cancer in laboratory animals. However, many of the studies that showed increased tumor development used animals that had been genetically engineered or treated with cancer-causing chemicals so as to be pre-disposed to develop cancer in the absence of RF exposure. Other studies exposed the animals to RF for up to 22 hours per day. These conditions are not similar to the conditions under which people use wireless phones, so we don’t know with certainty what the results of such studies mean for human health.

They then go on to describe how none of these studies answer questions about long-term exposure, as the average period of phone use among the subjects studied was 3 years. My interest in including this info is to examine the political and ethical implications involved in the phone and toy companies' (including Disney, Bratz, Mattel, LG, etc.) decision to start producing cell phones for kids, despite inconclusive evidence that the phones are 100% safe. They sound like the tobacco industry!
More coverage of kids' mobiles:

From CNet here and here.
From Consumer Reports
From SFGate
From info4cellphones
From PC World
From KidScreen
From Commercial Alert

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