Throughout the recent controversy sparked by Orewa College when it included iPads or similar wireless computing devices on its stationery list for Year Nine students there was much talk about the prohibitive price, society's increasing dependence on such technology and the high expectations of students today.
But a more pressing concern was overlooked in the furore: that is, whether we actually want our children to be working in a classroom where twenty or thirty separate devices are simultaneously seeking a wireless connection. The impacts of such elevated levels of electromagnetic radiation are as yet unknown although it's accepted it's likely to interfere with biological processes and there are fears it can cause cancer and harm developing brains.
Such concerns led a committee set up by the influential Council of Europe to recommend that its 47 member states "ban all mobile phones ... or WiFi ... from classrooms and schools" in order to protect children. Its 6 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."
While I realise that electromagnetic levels in areas such as airport lounges, where nearly everyone has a Blackberry or iPhone in their pocket, may be comparable to those found in a classroom full of WiFi users, the key difference, apart from the fact that frequent fliers are usually adults with minds and bodies that have reached maturity, is that we only endure the intensity of airport lounges for thirty minutes or an hour at a time. If wireless devices are adopted wholesale by schools who's to say students won't be under such conditions for up to eight hours each day?
At home I do my best to achieve reduced levels of electromagnetic radiation. My laptop computer is hardwired into broadband and I use a wireless network only when I travel. Even our landlines are plugged into the wall because those handheld portable devices emit a signal similar to that of mobile telephones.
And when I use my iPhone as a telephone I have it on speaker and hold it about thirty-centimetres in front of my face. I have an abiding suspicion of new, unproven technologies. (In 2000 I wrote an opinion piece entitled A case for weaning us off mobiles before it's too late for the NZ Herald in which I found parallels between the introduction of mobile telephones and the rise and fall of cigarettes.)
My daughter's school requires students to purchase their own "notebook computer" in Year Eight. That means I've got less than four years to work out how to navigate this situation. Do I arrange to have her excused from the classroom whenever twenty-odd computers are simultaneously seeking a wireless signal? Do I offer to fundraise to establish an old-fashioned computer room that has twenty-odd computers hard-wired into broadband? However it turns out, I'm sure it will involve acquiring some sort of device that measures levels of electromagnetic radiation and I'll be dashing around taking readings in various environments to prove my point.By Shelley Bridgeman