The Glowing School Bus

At age 12, my son had long complained that he was the only kid in his school without a smartphone. He regularly told me which of his classmates owned which device, information routinely followed by a plaintiff request for something, anything that would deliver him from the dark ages. I was sure he was exaggerating. Did the parents of every child in sixth grade send their child off to school with the internet and all its pitfalls stuffed into his or her pocket, purse, or pack? There must be a few parents out there as regressive as I was.

Then, one dark January morning, my son asked for a ride to the bus stop. I looked out at the pouring rain and decided to spare him my usual lecture about adversity building character. So, we piled into the car and bounced through the half mile of puddles that pockmarked the dirt road leading to his stop. The bus was just pulling up as we arrived.

I watched my son jump out and sprint towards the crowd of waiting children. At first, I was focused on him and didn’t notice. Then, as he reached the door to the bus, I saw it. In the morning gloom, the entire ceiling of the bus radiated a ghostly blue light. Every child on the bus was hunched over, transfixed by the unseen sources of the glow.

My son was, of course, right. Not only for his school, but for the entire country. Nine out of ten teenagers have smartphones. Children receive their first cell phone at an average age of 10.3 years. And, according to my children, pity that tenth teen. We never planned it that way. It just happened.

Or did it? Remember when the wireless service providers “gave away” smartphones with a two-year contract? Remember when they “gave away” a second phone with a renewal. Remember what did we do with those old phones? We weren’t going to throw away a four-hundred-dollar phone. At least, I didn’t. Like most of you, I gave that outdated phone to my child. And now we are all addicts. Try telling your teenager that her next phone will be a flip phone with no apps or internet access. Let me know how that goes.

And what happened to those free phone deals? Rumor has it the next iPhone will cost $1,000. Don’t hold your breath waiting for free. We got the drug for free and now our dealer is going to charge us.

Don’t get me wrong. Part of the addiction lies in the incredible usefulness of these devices. I do not advocate doing away with them. But I do advocate thinking about what we are doing to ourselves and particularly our children. Research shows the increased time spent using cellphones and tablets has a host of negative effects including worsening childhood obesity, slowing language development, and diminishing children’s abilities to detect social cues. Another body of research has provided increasing evidence that the microwave communication signals from cellphones increase the risk of brain cancer and infertility along with preliminary research suggesting there may be other negative health effects.

It may take many years, perhaps a generation of exposure, before we see the consequences and have compelling proof of the impact of today’s technology. In the meantime, we are conducting what may well be the largest uncontrolled experimental study in human history. We are exposing billions of people to the psychological, social, and physiological effects of cellphones with no certainty that these devices are safe and substantial preliminary evidence to suggest they are not.

By the time we know the result of this experiment, the damage will be done.

This series of articles will examine the origins and extent of that experiment, the addictive nature of the technology involved, the potential physical and psychological effects of cell phones, and the ways in which we might reassert ourselves as masters of the technology by learning how and when to unplug ourselves from the digital drug.