More helpful than harmful
The researchers found that children speaking on a cell were 43 percent more likely to be hit or to have a close call in the simulated street crossings than kids who weren’t on the phone. They also kept track of how many times a child would look left and right before stepping into the street and found that number fell by 20 percent when a phone conversation was going on.
There was no difference whether the participant was a boy or girl.
One weakness of the study is that it relied on a virtual realty simulator. But, Schwebel says, the simulator has been validated in other experiments in which the researchers compared VR results to tests run in a real world.
Kids don’t need to be banned from chatting on the phone when outside, however. Instead, parents simply should instruct them to finish their conversations before crossing the street.
“I don’t think this means parents should take phones away from their kids,” says Schwebel. “I encourage families to get cell phones for their children. They’re more helpful than harmful, if they’re used in a safe way.”
Other distractions, such as conversations with friends, listening to music, and text messaging, may also cause problems for children in this age group. The University of Alabama researchers expect to study the impact of those types of distractions in the future.
Experts in child safety applauded the cell phone study.
“If you’re talking on a cell phone, you’re not paying as much attention to the environment around you,” says Susan Baker, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore.
Brooke Carlson, a 44-year-old mom from Morgan Hill, Calif., has noticed how riveted her 9-year-old son is when he’s talking on the cell phone. Although she’d never thought of the dangers of crossing traffic while on the phone, Carlson says, “Now that I know about it, it makes total sense.” She plans to have a chat with her child about cell phones and street safety.
The preteen study adds to the mounting evidence that cell phones can be a big problem when mixed with motor vehicles. Other studies have shown that any kind of distraction can adversely impact teen driving, so it’s not surprising that preteens might not do such a good job crossing streets while chatting on the phone, says Dr. Barbara Gaines, director of the Benedum Pediatric Trauma Program at the Children’s Hospital of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
For younger kids, parents might consider purchasing a phone with a plan that only allows the child to dial up his or her parents, suggests Gaines. That way the cell can be used for emergencies, but not for chatting with friends for hours.
Antigua and Barbuda, St. John’s,
City of Griffith, Australia,
Peru, Lima, City,
Korea (North), Pyongyang
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA
Click on any of the pictures below
to learn more