Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Cellular Effects

Much has been said in recent days about the possible physical side effects of excessive cell phone use. We know that driving while talking on a cell induces the same effects as having a .08 alcohol blood count. Additional unease regarding the dangers of radiation from cell phone exposure continues to linger. Although the warnings have generally been pooh-poohed by Americans, European health agencies have warned their citizens for years and recommend limited cell phone use, especially for children.

Scientists in America are generally quick to assure the safety of new technology; however, blanket assurances always remind me of the radium dial girls of the mid 1920s. Few remember the story of the young women whose jobs involved painting radium laced illuminating liquid on clock dials. The girls were encouraged to shape the paintbrushes to a fine point with their lips. They were paid a penny and a half per dial. While shaping the brushes, they ingested the radium paint, called “Undark” and many developed deadly and horrifying jaw and lip cancers. Similar assurances had been made at that time regarding the safety of radiation exposure, yet those girls’ graves are still ticking out radiation like clockwork. Human fragility and our proven fallibility should dictate caution.

Lately, I’ve been thinking and wondering about unintended social consequences of many of the new tools our society has unhesitatingly embraced.

Wandering aimlessly around in Bement, searching for a street (only I could get lost in Bement), I saw a middle aged woman standing near a school and decided to ask for directions. I pulled up with my window down and then noticed she was laughing and talking on a cell phone. Before I could smile at her, and pull away- I didn’t want to interrupt; she glanced up at me, frowned, shook her head, and then turned her back to me to continue her conversation. Momentarily stunned by the ease of her rudeness, I waited a moment then pulled away. I looked elsewhere for assistance and added another mental entry to my list of the negative aspects of cell phones: they are a tool which enable and encourage rudeness. Cell phones can form an effective cloaking device that allows users to move through the world without connecting to others in the environment.

Last Spring, I watched a girl, perhaps 14 years old shopping with her grandfather. The grandfather was obviously making a graduation purchase for her- an extravagant piece of electrical equipment. She trailed him in a bored shuffle as he carried her gift; she never stopped texting or looked up from her cell phone/keyboard.

This disconnect is a distressing aspect of cell phones. It is something that many parents simply do not anticipate. When your teen has a cell phone and actively text messages, even when they are with you- participating in a family outing for example, they are also with their friends. It is intrusive and disruptive and parents are fighting to regain a measure of control.

As kids most of us talked with frequently with friends. I recall my mother’s irritation with the constantly ringing phone (a single phone, connected to the kitchen wall).The difference was, when we weren’t on the phone our pals, we were usually with our family. There were definite lines of demarcation. Texting has changed that notion. How is socialization and family life affected when peers are always available and present if only in voice or word? Additionally, the communication among friends is instant, often beyond parents’ sphere of influence, and can involve sharing confidential conversations with unintended parties. When these communications are posted to internet sites, the can even be criminal.

Kids are using technology in ways most of us simply did not envision. This technology is so new; we may not see results of physical risks associated with cell use for years to come; the social side-effects are all around us.

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