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Does Cell Phone Use Affect Kids’ Behavior?

cute little girl on cell phone

Cell phones may have an impact on children’s health—even before they’re born.

U.S. researchers found that kids whose mothers used a cell phone while pregnant were at higher risk for behavior problems by age 7. The risk increased if, after birth, the youngsters also used cell phones themselves.

The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, backed up research done in 2008. That earlier study involved 13,000 children; the current study looked at 29,000 children.

Energy emission and health

Cell phones and other telecommunication devices such as pagers and cordless phones emit electromagnetic energy—also called radiofrequency energy—to operate. The researchers looked at whether this energy might have an effect on behavior.

The researchers used data from 28,745 children enrolled in the Danish National Birth Cohort study, which follows the health of 100,000 Danish children born between 1996 and 2002, as well as the health of their mothers. Almost half the children had no exposure to cell phones at all, providing a good comparison group.

The data included a questionnaire the mothers completed when their children turned 7. The survey included questions about family lifestyle, childhood diseases, and cell phone use by children. It also included a standardized test designed to identify emotional or behavior problems, inattention or hyperactivity, or problems with other children. Based on their scores, the children in the study were classified as normal, borderline, or abnormal for behavior.

More cell phone use

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that 18 percent of the children were exposed to cell phones before and after birth, up from 10 percent in the 2008 study, and that 35 percent of 7-year-olds were using a cell phone, up from 30.5 percent in 2008. Virtually none of the children in either study used a cell phone for more than an hour a week.

The team then compared children's cell-phone exposure both in utero (in the womb) and after birth, adjusting for prematurity and birth weight; both parents' childhood history of emotional problems or problems with attention or learning; the mother's use of tobacco, alcohol, or drugs during pregnancy; breast-feeding for the first six months of life; and hours mothers spent with her child each day.

Compared with children who had no exposure to cell phones, kids exposed both before and after birth were 50 percent more likely to display behavior problems, the researchers found.

Children exposed to cell phones in the womb, but not after they were born, showed a 40 percent higher risk of borderline behavior problems. And those not exposed to cell phones before birth, but who were using them by age 7, were 20 percent more likely to have behavior problems.

Researchers' concern

The researchers couldn’t say that cell phone use actually caused behavior problems. But, they added, “we are concerned that early exposure to cell phones could carry a risk, which, if real, would be of public health concern given the widespread use of the technology."

More than 285 million Americans use cell phones, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. Some studies have raised concern that the radiofrequency energy from cell phones may pose a risk to human health, but the link between cell phone use and health problems, including cancer and brain tumors, hasn't been conclusively proved.

If you’re pregnant, you don’t have to give up your cell phone, says Leeka Kheifets, Ph.D., lead author and an epidemiologist at the School of Public Health at the University of California-Los Angeles. You can reduce your exposure to radiofrequency energy by using your cell phone's speaker mode or plugging in a headset to put more distance between your body or head and the phone, she says.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

RF energy

Cell phones emit radiofrequency (RF) energy. RF is a form of radiation that researchers have studied for many years for its effects on the human body. (Radiation, however, does NOT mean radioactive.)

The RF energy emitted by cell phones is too low to cause any heating in the body. According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), studies have not shown a link between cell phone use and cancer.

The NCI says that a cell phone user’s level of exposure to RF energy depends on several factors:

• The number and duration of calls

• The amount of cell phone traffic at a given time

• The distance from the nearest cellular base station

• The quality of the cellular transmission

• The size of the handset

• For older phones, how far the antenna is extended

• Whether a hands-free device is used

Online Resources

American Academy of Pediatrics – Cell Phones: What’s the Right Age to Start?

Federal Communications Commission – Wireless Devices and Health Concerns

Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health – Cell phone use and behavioural problems in young children

National Cancer Institute – Cell Phones and Cancer Risk

World Health Organization – Electromagnetic fields and public health: mobile phones

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