A wonderful thing is a cell phone, a palm-sized device sporting a computer more powerful than that of all but the latest Space Shuttles. Its versatility and convenience are so great that they befuddle the mind. Ofttimes, they have proved to be the difference between life and death when people are injured, lost or sick. Of course, they are the source of endless hours of info and pleasure to countless folks.

When we talk about cell phones in the hands of our children, we immediately broach the troubling topic of their fascination and preoccupation with the devices. If a parent does not call them out, children – and some adults – will fiddle with their phones during meals instead of conversing with family and friends. They do the same in school, in church and even while walking absent-mindedly amid dangerous traffic. In this they mimic adults and other drivers who gamble with the risky odds of the road. Worst of all, suicides are markedly higher among addicts of social media.

In Japan, which boasts the highest percentage of cell phone users in the world and a nation more savvy and more engaged in the devices than any other people, research scientists chose 18,000 adolescents in junior and senior high schools and asked them questions designed to discover symptoms of anxiety and depression. Other questions were designed to uncover lurking suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Researchers also asked the students how many hours they slept each night and how often they checked emails or talked on the phone after going to bed.

They found that the students who used their cell phones after going to bed were more likely to suffer from poor mental health and depression. Surprisingly, that link did not change, even when the researchers controlled for other factors known to affect mental health, such as drug and alcohol use.

In another ominous health connection, use of the phone after bedtime correlated with fewer hours of sleep. The research was not altogether surprising for many psychologists, since extensive research shows that sleep is closely linked with mental health. A study published in 2011 in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that teens who had trouble sleeping were at increased risk for suicide and self-harm. Researchers reason that looking at a bright screen and performing tasks that excite the brain may slow the production of melatonin, a hormone that is produced during sleep. It is the body’s natural sleep hormone that is of incredible importance.

AKA N-acetyl-5-methoxy tryptamine, melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in animals that regulates sleep and wakefulness. It is also produced in plants where it functions as a first line of defense against oxidative stress. In animals, melatonin is involved in the synchronization of the circadian rhythms, including sleep-wake timing, blood pressure regulation, seasonal reproduction et al.

So pervasive is cell phone abuse among teenagers that a 2009 survey found that 25 percent of primary school cell phone owners feel anxious if they send an email without quickly receiving a response. Which feeds into the studies showing that children use their cell phones as emotional crutches.

Masasho Yasukawa of the private National Web Counseling Council observes, “Kids say what’s most important to them, next to their own lives, is their cell phone. They are moving their thumbs while eating or watching television.”

Some youngsters are so hooked on sending e-mails with cell phones that they become uncomfortable dealing face to face with people. Some develop an addiction Japanese psychologists have labeled as “communication dependence syndrome.”

Beware of the bane of cyberporn that is evil of itself, but, as psychiatrists warn, twice evil in that its addiction is every bit as real and ironclad as heavy drug addiction. This creepy abuse of the cell phone/computer spares no age, gender, race, walk of life or profession. It is an equal opportunity crippler of human beings.

Wringing our hands and lamenting this perilous state of affairs will do no good for our children or for us. As the first teachers, parents must join preachers and school teachers to deliver life’s true riches of mind, body and soul to our kids.

It is no understatement to urge the family/church/school, that could be dubbed the Trinity For Rearing Children, to remain totally aware that they are the fundamental, seminal resource of knowledge, understanding, wisdom, faith, religion, morality and eternal values given us by God to transmit to our children. This Trinity must work in concert ever on the same page and the same line to navigate our children through the dangerous shoals of scientific wonders like the cell phone.

Rev. Jerome LeDoux, SVD

“God is love, and all who abide in love abide in God and God in them.”   (1 John 4:16)