Cell Phones, Traffic a Deadly Combo for Kids

MONDAY Jan. 26, 2009 -- Talking on a cell phone while crossing a street can be disastrous for children,a University of Alabama at Birmingham study shows.

The research, first presented in April at the National Conference on Child Health Psychology, is being published in the February issue of the Pediatrics. It found that 10- and 11-year-olds were less attentive to traffic and were involved in more collisions and near misses with traffic when using a cell phone to talk to a research assistant in interactive, simulated road crossings.

"The children who were on the cell phone and were distracted during their crossing were significantly more likely to get hit by a car in the virtual environment," study author Katherine Byington, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said at the time of the April presentation. "They were getting hit or almost getting hit at least [once], while the kids that weren't on the cell phone didn't get hit."

In the study, 77 youngsters aged 10 to 12 were placed in a virtual-reality environment that mimicked a street, with traffic coming in both directions. Children stood on a "curb" and when they stepped down, an avatar crossed the virtual street in their place.

The kids practiced the exercise six times while talking on cell phones and six times while not talking on cell phones. Cell phone use raised the odds that their virtual self was "hit" by a car, the researchers said.

A related study from the university last year found that one-third of children aged 10 to 12 own a cell phone. At least one marketing firm reports that more than half of all 8- to 12-year-olds in the United States will own a cell phone by the end of this year.

Cell phone usage complicates the seemingly simple -- but actually neurologically complex -- task of crossing a street, the authors of the new study noted. Making your way across a busy intersection involves complex brain processes, they said, and "unintentional pedestrian injury" is a major cause of death in middle childhood.

"The change has to be with the parent," Dr. Judy Schaechter, director of the Injury Free Coalition for Kids of Miami, said at the time of the April presentation. "Parents need to consider the risk before they buy the young child a cell phone, and parents need to lay down rules and clear consequences for cell phone use, which includes not using it when crossing the street or not on sidewalks. The research provides an opportunity to teach children responsible behavior before they get behind the wheel of a car."

More information

Safe Kids Worldwide has more about preventing accidental injury.

Posted: January 2009


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