A new study on cell phones and memory has found that electromagnetic fields from wireless devices can cause damage to adolescent brains.
The peer-reviewed study, released in July 2018, was conducted by the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (Swiss TPH). The results suggest a link between exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMFs) and memory performance in teens — yet another health risk of EMFs to be unearthed by the scientific community.
The Study on Cell Phones and Memory
For their study, the Swiss TPH team analyzed data from a large sample of nearly 700 Swiss teenagers. To get a detailed picture of how the teens’ brains were developing, the researchers tracked EMF exposure and memory performance over the course of an entire year.
The study found that “cumulative RF-EMF brain exposure from mobile phone use over one year may have a negative effect on the development of figural memory performance in adolescents.”
So what exactly is figural memory?
Figural memory relates to your ability to remember abstract forms. Think of this as different to verbal memory, for example, which is used to remember words. Verbal memory was also measured by the researchers, but not found to be significantly effected by RF exposure.
Figural memory, meanwhile, is mainly located in the right brain hemisphere. An interesting finding of the study was that teens who held their cell phones up to the right side of their heads had the strongest memory deterioration.
“This may suggest that indeed RF-EMF absorbed by the brain is responsible for the observed associations,” Martin Röösli, Head of Environmental Exposures and Health at Swiss TPH, said in a press release.
A Growing Body of Evidence
The 2018 Swiss TPH study isn’t the first to assess the effects of EMF on teenage brain development. It’s actually a follow-up to a 2015 study, published in the scientific journal Environmental International, which also concluded that there was a strong correlation between RF-EMF exposure and figural memory performance in teens.
The 2018 study is therefore significant in that it confirms prior results.
Not only does this add weight to the findings of the original study, it does so by expanding the research with twice the sample size and more up-to-date information.
While some studies around cell phone use rely on participants’ own reports to get estimates of how much RF they’re exposed to, both the 2015 and 2018 memory studies had a more solid approach to data collection. Rather than rely purely on self-reporting, they also collected data from cell phone operators.
This objective information on duration of calls and number of text messages sent allowed the researchers to get a more accurate estimate of EMF doses.
Though operator data was not collected for all participants, the researchers received a strong sample of quantitative mobile phone use. This detailed data allowed them to calibrate the self-reported data and account for overestimations and biases.
Ultimately what the researchers found was that impaired memory development was most strongly correlated with time spent making voice calls, when RF exposure to the head was strongest and most direct.
Cell Phone Use in Teens
The study on cell phones and memory comes at a time when cell phone use in teenagers is increasing at an alarming rate. And on top of that, cell phones are being owned and accessed at an increasingly young age.
The average age for kids to get their first smartphone is now just 10.3 years.
A 2017 report from Nielsen found that around 45% of US children between the ages of 10 to 12 had their own smartphone with a service plan rather than just wifi, meaning they’re constantly connected to cell phone networks.
This means that younger generations are being exposed to health risks from EMF both earlier in life, and for a longer duration. By the time they reach their teenage years, smartphone use is near to ubiquitous: 95% of teens now report that they have access to one.
Psychological factors are adding to the concern. Another recent study found that one out of two teenagers feels “addicted” to their cell phone, suggesting that usage will only continue to increase.
As with all things related to electromagnetic fields, experts recommend taking the cautious approach. If you have children or teenagers in your household, encourage them to limit their use, or equip them with an air tube headset to create distance between the cell phone and their developing brains.
“Potential risks to the brain can be minimised by using headphones or the loud speaker while calling,” professor Röösli has said, “in particular when network quality is low and the mobile phone is functioning at maximum power.”