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Parents need to tell kids to finish their conversations on a cell phone — before stepping off the curb.
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msnbc.com contributor
updated 1/26/2009 8:25:21 AM ET 2009-01-26T13:25:21

More parents are looking to cell phones to help keep their children safe. But mom and dad should be aware: Kids who talk on a cell phone may be more likely to step into traffic, a new study shows.

Children should learn to end phone conversations before they step up to the curb and prepare to step into traffic, says David Schwebel, an associate professor and vice chair in the department of psychology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and co-author of the study.

While research shows that older kids and more experienced users also don't navigate streets as well while on a cell phone, younger children tended to find gadgets more distracting.

“Kids this age are just learning to cross the street on their own,” says Schwebel. "They're novices."

A third of the 20 million 8- to 12-year-olds in the United States already have a cell phone, with more than half of "tweens" expected to be carrying them by the end of next year, according to market researchers. The research from the University of Alabama researchers highlights how important it is for parents to teach kids about cell phone safety while they’re out walking around.

In the study, which was published in latest issue of Pediatrics, researchers watched as 77 pre-teens individually navigated a virtual reality street crossing. The children were first allowed to familiarize themselves with the street scene before actually starting the test. Then they were asked to run through the simulation 12 times, six while on the phone, six while undistracted.

While on the phone, children were asked questions such as, “What’s your favorite television show?” or, “What do you like to do for fun?”

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.

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“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.

Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.

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