Electricity was introduced as a power source in the late 19th century and became more widespread in the early 20th century. Over the past 100 years or so we’ve gradually been introducing our bodies more and more frequently to electromagnetic (EM) fields and electromagnetic radiation. Cell phones have been one of the most discussed electrical devices in relation to our health – in part due to the strength of EM radiation produced and also to their pervasiveness in our society. We are, however, exposed to varying levels of EM radiation from many other sources including radio towers, Wi-Fi routers and devices, medical imaging devices and on and on. Rarely, however, do we contemplate the possible health effects of all these devices as we’ve come to accept them as a natural and normal part of our modern existence.
While some types EM radiation are known to have a definite impact on health, such as x-rays, the impact of other types are less well understood and often considered relatively benign. When you think about the health controversy surrounding cell phones, you may be thinking whether or not they cause brain tumors. But, a Danish study in 2008, looked at the effect of cell phone use on a different outcome – behavior. Specifically, they looked at behavior in children at age 7 who had a varying history of exposure to cell phones.
Interestingly, it seems that children who were exposed to cell phones had an increased likelihood of behavioral problems. What’s even more interesting is that children with exposure to cell phones both before and after birth had the strongest odds of developing behavioral problems compared to those with no exposure. In fact, exposure before birth seemed to correlate more strongly with behavioral problems than exposure after birth.
You may be wondering what type of behavioral problems we’re talking about. Unfortunately, the information was gathered from patient questionnaires, so it doesn’t necessarily correlate with a specific clinical diagnosis, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The questionnaire did, however, look at four symptom areas – emotional, conduct, hyperactivity and peer problems. A higher percentage of children scored abnormal in all four of these areas when they had been exposed to cell phones both before and after birth compared to those with no cell phone exposure at all.
What could this mean? Could it be that cell phone use can affect a child’s development while in the womb in some as of yet unrecognized way? While this study certainly seems to say yes, it is far from conclusive. There are many, many variables that can affect a child’s behavior and development and it is entirely possible that the correlation is really due to some other factor that was unaccounted for by the researchers. So, while this research should certainly give us pause and encourage us to reflect upon how technology is truly affecting our lives, it is far from proof positive that cell phones are harmful. At this point, there’s not really enough evidence to say for sure whether cell phones are harmful to child development or not. Hopefully, future research will help to clarify the issue.
Divan, Hozefa A.; Kheifets, Leeka; Obel, Carsten; Olsen, Jorn (2008): Prenatal and Postnatal Exposure to Cell Phone Use and Behavioral Problems in Children. In Epidemiology 19 (4).