In late 2011 my daughter's school announced that the following year iPads would be recommended items for students in year five. This threw me into a spin. Because I'd not encountered such widespread use of mobile devices in a primary school before, I felt the need to explore its implications - particularly in regard to safety.
In the absence of readily accessible local information on Wi-Fi in schools, I discovered that the Council of Europe had recommended that its 47 member states "ban all mobile phones ... or WiFi ... from classrooms and schools" in order to protect children. Its May 2011 document stated that "waiting for high levels of scientific and clinical proof can lead to very high health and economic costs, as was the case in the past with asbestos, leaded petrol and tobacco". Needless to say, this did not ease my mind.
At this point I made enquiries as to whether there were any Wi-Fi-free schools in our area. It quickly became clear that this iPad craze was taking hold and it was only a matter of time before they were in every classroom in every school. I needed to investigate further.
I emailed the Minister of Education. In November Anne Tolley replied that the "Ministry of Education is satisfied that Wi-Fi equipment is safe in schools but will continue to actively monitor any developments in this area". The Ministry of Health had advised that "WiFi equipment in schools does not pose a health risk." The reasons given to explain why "exposures to radiofrequency fields from WiFi equipment are extremely low" were: "1: the low power of the WiFi transmitter; 2. the rapid decrease in signal strength with increasing distance from the transmitter; 3. the fact that no signal is transmitted when no data is being transferred (except for brief 'beacon signals')."
Because my daughter and her classmates were essentially pioneers in the area, I asked for more details. In May 2012 a scientist from the National Radiation Laboratory emailed me about what likely "rf [radiofrequency] radiation exposure rate levels in terms of power flux density would be for a pupil ... at some distance ... from either a transmitting laptop or an access point (i.e. the WiFi modem)". He gave me some figures and explained "as you can see by comparing the readings that they got at 0.5m to the much smaller readings that they got at 1m that the exposure level drops off very fast with distance ... so ... you wouldn't expect a pupil at least 0.5m away from any of them will get more than 1% of the reference level".
Leaving aside the (surely not insignificant) fact that most children don't work on these devices from a distance of 50cm, I thought I understood the key message: the further students were from both the laptop and the access point the better. Well, that was easy fixed. I checked my daughter's classroom to ensure the access point was fixed high up on the wall and away from students. And I told my daughter to keep any iPad or laptop she (or anyone else at her table) was working on as far away from her body as possible.
At last, my work here was done.
Or so I thought until I saw photographs of school children working on iPads at such close quarters that the devices were virtually resting against their chests and quite likely no more than 20cm from their heads. But I didn't have the exposure levels for those distances! What would I do now? I went into a darkened room, had a lie down and decided to stop worrying about it. I just couldn't get to grips with this newfangled technology. It was officially in the too-hard basket.
But then last month the Ministry of Health posted its Snapshot Study: WiFi In Schools which reports findings of a study conducted in two New Zealand schools. It recorded average exposures at a (more realistic) distance of 30cm from a laptop and included the revelation that the "devices transmit for a total of less than 18 seconds in every hour".
The report supports the Ministry's original claim that Wi-Fi in schools does not pose a health risk. If only it had been around when I was seeking reassurance, it would have saved me inflicting my "concerned mother" questions upon those patient scientists at the National Radiation Laboratory.
What are your thoughts about Wi-Fi in schools? Did you have any concerns about its safety?