This month, Walt Disney Co. (DIS ) is launching Disney Mobile, a cell-phone service aimed squarely at kids and their parents. Children will be able to download exclusive Disney content such as games, ringtones, and cool wallpaper for their screens. The entertainment giant is hoping that moms and dads will want this new electronic tether for their children, which includes such security features as a global positioning system that keeps tabs on kids' locations and the ability to control cell-phone use from a PC.
The launch represents a dramatic about-face from the fall of 2000, when Disney abandoned plans to put Mickey and Minnie on Nokia Corp. (NOK ) cell-phone covers. The company retreated after a public outcry erupted over the question of whether mobile phones posed a health hazard, particularly to children. The big fear was that cell phones could one day be proven to cause cancer or other neurological disorders. The issue was controversial enough that Disney rescinded the licensing scheme, citing uncertainty about health risks. A Disney spokesman said at the time that it wouldn't proceed with a new plan until "there was reliable scientific evidence establishing the absence of any such link."
So what has changed? Actually, not much. The Disney Mobile Web site shows Mickey, Alice in Wonderland, and other beloved characters happily jumping out of a cell-phone screen. Safety concerns "really [haven't] been an issue here in the U.S. for quite some time now," says Disney Mobile spokesperson Anthony Sprauve. He added that the Food & Drug Administration has repeatedly stated that there is no concrete data showing any danger from cell phones. "Disney is relying on the FDA."
In some parts of the scientific community and in several European countries, though, the question of whether cell phones are safe, especially when it comes to kids, has yet to be answered. Britain's advisory body on radiological hazards, the Health Protection Agency, has issued precautionary advice urging parents to limit their kids' use of cell phones. The HPA recommends that younger children use cell phones only for essential purposes.
"NO SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE"
While there is no definitive proof of health consequences from cell-phone radiation beaming at young skulls, there is a scientific debate on the issue. "The agency's position is precautionary because of the genuine uncertainties that come with the rapid introduction of any new technology," says Dr. Mike Clark, scientific spokesman for the HPA. "The fact that younger and younger children were using them certainly worried us." Clark says the agency's official line is that it would be wrong for the industry to market phones directly to children. Cell-phone companies, Clark says, have honored that position in Britain.
The FDA, for its part, says there's no available scientific evidence of health problems associated with using wireless phones. But it also notes that "there is no proof, however, that wireless phones are absolutely safe." Adds Louis Slesin, publisher of Microwave News, a journal that has tracked the issue for 25 years: "There is plenty of data showing that we may have a serious problem on our hands, but at this point no one really knows for sure."
Essentially, then, the U.S. offers no precautionary guidelines. So companies are preparing to go after what analysts say is the next gold mine: kids, even those as young as 5. Last year, Cingular Wireless (T ) launched the brightly colored Firefly, and Verizon Wireless put out a toylike four-button phone called Migo. On June 12, Verizon will announce a safety service for the Migo called Chaperone -- part baby-sitter, part Big Brother. One feature notifies parents when their child has crossed a preprogrammed boundary, such as a schoolyard.
Cingular declined to comment on the health safety concern, saying that the real issue was kids' appropriate use of phones. Verizon said the company has come to the conclusion that there appears to be "no scientific evidence...that points to negative health effects to people, including children, who use mobile phones."
For years, science has been divided over the effects of radio-frequency (RF) energy emitted by wireless phones. We have long lived with radiation, but what's different now is that the tiny devices have never been so close to our heads for so many hours of the day. Researchers and doctors worry that children could be more vulnerable to exposure from cell phones given their thinner skulls and still-developing brains. Some studies, the FDA says, have suggested that there may be biological effects, "but such findings have not been confirmed by additional research."
An independent analysis of all existing studies done on cell phones is itself divided. Dr. Henry Lai, research professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, looked at the 319 laboratory or clinical studies conducted on cell phones worldwide and found that 56% have shown a biological effect in cells or animals exposed to RF radiation, while 44% have not -- though there is also controversy over how dangerous the observed effects are. "There's a 50-50 uncertainty as to whether cell phones could possibly have any harmful effects," says Lai. "So if it's a cause for concern, why not limit exposure to children? I don't think Americans are less susceptible to radiation than Europeans."
The FDA says it has the authority to take action if wireless phones are shown to emit hazardous levels of RF energy. The agency also says it has urged the wireless industry to support needed research, design phones to limit radiation exposure, and continue providing consumers with the latest information on possible health effects from wireless phones.
So far there has been no public clamor over the new services like Disney's. Does this mean phones are safe for kids? Or is the U.S. hooked and in collective denial? For now scientists concerned about cell-phone safety say the only thing protecting kids from possible danger is their parents.
By Michelle Conlin