In addition to developing their camping skills, attending a food drive to help the hungry and donating pajamas for the elderly, this year Girl Scouts across America were offered a new way to earn a special unified patch: learning the wonders of 5G cell phone technology know and in some cases, promotion.
The opportunity arose thanks to Ericsson, the Swedish telecom giant, who sponsored the Ericsson Limited Edition 5G & IoT (Internet of Things) patch program. The program, which is still available on at least one Girl Scout website, caters to all ages, from Daisies (kindergarten-age Scouts) to Ambassadors (those in high school), with a range of activities aimed at that , “Girl Scouts on 5G and the Internet of Things.”
That includes watching Explaining 5G to Kids, a five-minute video featuring Mats, a bearded Ericsson employee, as he chats to Siofra, Freya and two other squirming but charming kids, who speak English with hints of a Swedish accent. Mats explains that 5G is a “new technology for mobile phones”. It makes everything so much better.” He explains that technology could allow children’s toys to connect. “Wouldn’t that be cool?” he asks. “Ericsson does that,” explains Mats. “That’s what 5G can do.”
Other recommended activities sound more like do-it-yourself advertising. High school-aged members of a Girl Scout website are encouraged to “find a cell tower and make a video explaining how 5G would change the world for you. Share the video you made with a friend or fellow Girl Scout. Or, with adult permission, post your video on social media and tag @gsheartofnj @ericsson #girlscoutstalk5G.”
And Scouts of all ages are invited “to discuss with your squad or an adult how safe the mmWave spectrum is and not harmful to our health.”
Some health professionals, concerned that wireless radiation poses a health risk to children, have criticized the Ericsson program as an improper and inaccurate form of industry marketing. “Anytime companies advertise directly to children, I’m very suspicious,” said Dr. Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician and professor emeritus in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at George Washington University, told ProPublica. “It would be like Exxon Mobil sponsoring a climate change patch.” Paulson previously served as chair of the Council on Environmental Health at the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has criticized the Federal Communications Commission’s wireless radiation standards for failing to protect children .
The Environmental Health Trust, a non-profit activist who first spotted the Ericsson program, recently sent a letter of protest to the Girl Scouts national office, saying the patch materials “misleadingly claim that 5G networks and cell phones are safe.” , and requested its removal from all Girl Scout websites. The ten signatories included “former Girl Scouts and parents of Girl Scouts,” the chair of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at Yale School of Medicine, the former president of Microsoft Canada, and a Swedish scientist who has conducted influential epidemiological studies on cell phone radiation .
In an emailed statement, Ericsson’s Global Chief Learning Officer Vidya Krishnan, who sits on the Girl Scouts National Board, defended the program: “The Ericsson Girl Scouts 5G patch has the sole purpose of providing our next generation with the latest wireless Enlightening technologies shape their lives and their future. Educational awareness is the only intent and effect.” (In October, the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas honored Krishnan as the Woman of Distinction at their annual fundraising luncheon, where a presenting sponsorship raised $100,000 and individual tickets sold for $300 US dollars were sold.)
The Girl Scouts are, of course, no strangers to the world of commerce. They have long been known for their annual cookie sales — which Scouts call “the largest girl-led entrepreneurship program in the world” — which raise about $800 million annually for local activities. Girls are eligible for special “Cookie Business” badges by refining their sales pitches and using market research.
And the Girl Scouts have offered other patches sponsored by corporations. Among them: Fidelity Investments, which sponsors a “Girls’ Guide to Money Management.” A chapter in Texas offered a patch for Fluorotechnology Month.
The Ericsson 5G patch was first made available in March 2021 via the Northeast Texas Council of the Girl Scouts website. Ericsson’s US headquarters is in Plano, Texas, and the company, which boasts of being “the leading provider of 5G network equipment in the US,” has been involved in the region’s Girl Scouts program for several years. Ericsson has focused on encouraging interest in careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM, where girls have historically been underrepresented. (The company’s Facebook page includes photos of Girl Scouts wearing hard hats on a 2018 field trip to an Ericsson training center with replica cell towers and transmitters.) A second Ericsson executive serves on the board of local Girl Scouts, and according to public sources Ericsson has in recent Donated more than $100,000 annually to the Northeast Texas Council for three years.
Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas chief program officer Ashley Crowe said 697 Girl Scouts received the Ericsson 5G patch. Praising Ericsson’s support for the Girl Scouts, Crowe said “I, for one, would never feel taken advantage of by Ericsson,” but added that she was unaware of the health concerns over children’s exposure to cellphone radiation. “I had never heard of that,” she said. “This was not brought to our attention at all.”
Following inquiries from ProPublica regarding the matter, the patch program has been removed from the Texas Council’s website. (A council spokesman claimed that “the patch program was removed from our website in early October,” stating that “Ericsson’s 5G IoT patch program was funded by Ericsson as a year-long optional program for local Girl Scouts and was completed on October 30. September 2022.” However, a ProPublica reporter did not see the patch on the Texas website until Nov. 21.) It is still available on a New Jersey Girls Scouts Council website.
A spokeswoman for Girl Scouts Heart of New Jersey issued a statement on behalf of their CEO, Natasha Hemmings, claiming that “the safety and welfare of our Girl Scouts is, and always has been, our top priority.” The statement continued, “In line with our mission, we are working with numerous organizations and companies, including Ericsson, to expand access to education and empower girls to become tomorrow’s leaders.”
The US National Office of Girl Scouts did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Scientific concern about whether cell phone radiation poses a risk to human health, including an increased risk of cancer, fertility problems, or other problems, has increased in recent years. (ProPublica recently researched this topic extensively.) The research includes a massive U.S. government study that found “conclusive evidence” in 2018 that cellphone radiation causes cancer in laboratory animals. Some researchers have also warned of a particular risk for children, citing studies showing their developing brains absorb more radiation due to their thinner, smaller skulls. The American Academy of Pediatrics has echoed this concern, calling on the FCC to revise its exposure standards because it does not adequately protect children.
More than 20 foreign governments have adopted protective measures or recommended precautions regarding wireless radiation, many of them focusing on limiting children’s exposure. The European Environment Agency offers similar guidance, noting: “There is enough evidence of risk to advise people, especially children, not to hold the handset to their heads.”
The wireless industry and US regulators, including the FCC and the Food and Drug Administration, deny there is a proven health risk to anyone. They deny that the technology poses a particular danger to children and advocate no precautionary measures. For example, the FCC’s Wireless Devices and Health Concerns page notes that “some parties” are recommending safety measures “although no scientific evidence currently establishes a definitive link between wireless device use and cancer or other diseases.” Then it says in bold: “The FCC does not endorse the necessity of these practices.”