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A serious side effect to your child using a cell phone

Published July 10. 2010 09:00AM

When I see a lifestyle pattern emerging with the potential to induce a health disaster, I am duty bound to write about it.

Even if it makes me look like a Luddite and to some degree contradicts recent research.

On May 23, many Tribune-owned newspapers printed an article by Melissa Healy that declared kids who are absorbed in "digital distractions" computers, MP3 players, television, video games, and cell phones are not "socially stunted" as the stereotype portrays them. "In fact, children most likely to spend lots of time on social media sites are the healthiest psychologically," primarily because "electronics [now] appear to be the path by which children today develop emotional bonds, their own identities, and an ability to communicate and work with others."

While the validity of those final statements could be disputed, let's not. Let's assume the article's claim: the fact that American children aged 8 to 18 now spend more time a day using the electronic devices listed above than they do sleeping is a good thing because it helps them develop social skills.

But should developing social skills come at the cost of reducing physical fitness?

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the source Healy used in her article, children between the ages of 11-14 now spend more than 8 1/2 hours a day with the aforementioned electronics; 15-18 year olds spend nearly 9 1/2. Add that to the time needed for sleeping, eating, and hygiene and that doesn't leave much time for riding a bike, swimming in a creek, playing baseball in the park.

Is it any wonder that the most recent annual survey on American trends in outdoor recreation claims that "the critical connection between children and nature has faded"? That, "today, children increasingly spend much of their free time indoors or in structured sedentary activity"?

Or that it called the lack of outdoor activity by youngsters and teenagers "troubling"?

Even more troubling is that this lack of outdoor activity will only exacerbate a serious and relatively recent problem: childhood obesity.

According to statistics provided by the National Institutes for Health, the number of overweight children aged 6-11 increased by 298 percent between 1986 and 2006. The rate for those aged 12-19 rose 348 percent.

One of the reasons the NIH gave for such a dramatic rise was a decline in physical activity, and the 2006 report warned that overweight adolescents are far more likely to develop the risk factors that lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

An equally frightening prospect is offered by Melinda Sothern, professor of public health at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans. When she presented research at the American Diabetes Association's annual meeting in 2009, she said, "We have a new generation of children who are metabolically different.

"We think there's been a series of genetic mutations linked to environmental and lifestyle changes over the last few generations that have led to this."

While the last few generations have seen numerous "environmental and lifestyle changes," it can't be discounted that a child's time using electronic devices has at least quadrupled since 1970 while exercise time has gone down.

Another number that has gone down is life expectancy. The present generation is predicted not to live longer than their parents, a situation that has never occurred since life expectancy has been tabulated in the U.S.

Additionally, a study published online in March in the Journal of Pediatrics found that being obese in childhood can take as many as 20 years off a child's life as well as trigger diseases normally associated with middle age to develop in half the time.

To bring this column full circle, consider the most recent electronic phenomenon to fascinate children and teenagers: the cell phone. A graph used in Healy's article shows that the average time spent on a cell phone a day by an 11-14 year old who has one is just shy of 40 minutes.

Even more surprising is that this group averages another 73 minutes texting.

But the time 15-18 year olds spend is greater yet. Their combined talking-and-texting time totals 153 minutes.

Granted, in this day and age it's a difficult decision to forbid your child to own a cell phone or to allow its use but forbid texting. That's why this column was created.

Its origin came from a discussion I had with a parent about cell phones and how powerless he felt to forbid his daughter to have one.

"It's become a necessary evil," he said.

While that may be true, this is also: the more necessary the cell phone becomes to your son or daughter, the more likely it will create evil.

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