By CLAUDIA FELDMAN and PETE HOLLEY
HOUSTON — It is the first thing she does in the morning and the last thing she does at night.
It continues in class when the teacher isn’t looking and even in the middle of a busy downtown street.
Nothing – including a reporter’s pesky questions – are enough to slow Johnetta Parker’s thumbs from firing off text messages on her cellphone.
“I send around 1,300 texts a day,” the 15-year-old giggled outside the clothing store Forever 21 with two of her friends. “As soon as I open my eyes, before I brush my teeth, I check my phone and send a text to one of my friends.”
Is Johnetta at an increased risk of rare forms of brain cancer because of her heavy cellphone use? Or is her habit of texting instead of talking keeping her out of harm’s way?
A recent World Health Organization study suggested a possible link between cellphone use and cancer, but early news reports didn’t differentiate between talking and texting.
In fact, said Dr. Jonathan Samet, the chairman of the WHO advisory panel, when it comes to cellphones, it may be considerably safer to text than talk.
“The highest exposures (of radiation) to the brain come with ’on ear’ use,” said Samet, a physician and epidemiologist. “Those (exposures) with texting or hands-free technology are lower.”
Take that, Mom and Dad.
But neuro-oncologist Dr. Charles Conrad, a talker more than a texter, isn’t worried.
“These cancer scares tied to cellphones crop up every few years, it seems, but there are also many studies that are negative – they don’t show any risk or relationship at all,” said the brain cancer specialist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. “This latest report is going to be published in the journal Lancet on July 1. Then we’ll be able to look at all the data.”
Conrad has three offspring, 16, 20 and 23. They carry cellphones, he said, “and I wouldn’t tell them to stop – even if I could – unless I had definitive evidence.”
The WHO report classified cellphones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
Also in that category are pesticides, dry-cleaning chemicals, engine exhaust, pickled vegetables, coffee and titanium dioxide, which is commonly found in toothpaste.
“This is such a mild class of carcinogen,” Conrad said, “I’m not going to tell the kids to stop using toothpaste, either.”
Eating 24 jars of pickles in a single day could be dangerous, too, joked New York City columnist, blogger and author Lenore Skenazy. In 2009 she wrote “Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe Self-Reliant Children Without Going Nuts with Worry.”
Hyperprotective parents are a favorite Skenazy target, and she thinks this latest news from WHO will only feed those paranoid parental fears.
“People will wave this study around and not worry about nuance or that it is not conclusive,” Skenazy said. “We’re trained to go into hysteria mode when anything so much as hints that we’re all mortal.”
Skenazy has two teenage sons, and she has no worries that their cellphones will give them cancer. She did almost have a heart attack, however, when she saw one son cross a busy New York street with his eyes on his phone instead of the oncoming traffic.
“I, too, find checking my messages almost irresistible,” Skenazy said. “Who knows,” she added tongue-in-cheek, “it could be a job offer. Or maybe a compliment.”
Educator and author Rosalind Wiseman, who wrote “Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence,” said she had to laugh when she heard about the tenuous connection between cellphones and cancer.
“If we need a fear of cancer to help us establish healthy boundaries with cellphones, then I’ll take it,” said Wiseman, based in Washington D.C. “I work with thousands and thousands of kids every year, and their cellphones are like appendages, like limbs.”
No surprise, most of the cellphone use that Wiseman observes involves texting, not actually talking.
Texting has increased dramatically over the past four to five years and teens are doing a whole lot of it, “ said Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. ” This is the dominant way of communicating on a daily basis for teenagers, which is not to say they’re not talking face to face or calling on the phone, too. “
Half of all American teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three sends more than 100 texts a day or more than 3,000 texts a month, according to ” Teens and Mobile Phones, “ a report released last year by the research center.
According to the report, teen girls ages 14-17 lead the charge on text messaging, averaging 100 messages a day.
” A lot of teens send a lot of text messages, but there are certainly outliers who send hundreds, perhaps more, a each day, “ Lenhart said.
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