Robert Glatter — Forbes May 20, 2014
The debate over whether the use of mobile technology found in smartphones has an effect on brain development in children and teens has been an ongoing concern of parents and educators. With the widespread use of this technology, the question remains whether the use of such phones can lead to long term cognitive effects that impact language development skills, memory capability and maintaining focus on tasks at hand.
Researchers will study 2,500 seventh graders in 160 schools throughout London. This study, over a period of three years, will represent the largest investigation to date evaluating any potential relationship of mobile or smartphone phone use on the developing brains of teens.
The investigators, from the Imperial College in London, hope to find any potential link to phones use and adverse effects on cognitive abilities in developing teens. The study will be referred to as the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP).
Measures to evaluate memory, reaction time, and spatial awareness will help to assess cognitive function both during and after the study period. Twenty percent of participants in the study will also be equipped with specialized meters to more closely evaluate effects of electromagnetic radiation over the study period.
The investigation is part of the Research Initiative on Health and Mobile Telecommunications (RIHMT), funded by the mobile phone companies as well as the Department of Health.
Current data in the UK reveals that nearly 70 percent of 11-12 year olds use a mobile phone. This increases to close to 90 percent by the age of 14.
Thus far, concern that electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones increase the frequency of brain cancer in adults as well as children has not been shown to be true. But whether the use of such technology in smartphones can adversely effect cognitive development in teen brains also remains an important unanswered question.
It has been suggested that the developing brain and central system may in fact be more vulnerable to radio frequency exposures. The temporal and frontal lobes are closest to the ear where teens hold their phones, unless they are using an earpiece. In fact, research has shown that both the temporal and frontal are actively developing during adolescence and are instrumental in aspects of advanced cognitive functioning.
Interestingly, although there is no concrete proof that mobile or smartphone technology is linked to adverse outcomes, health officials in the UK currently recommend that teens under the age of 16 only use mobile phones only for emergency or critical needs. Texting or use of an earpiece is advised along with keeping all calls to a minimum.
Available published scientific evidence thus far has not linked radiation exposure from use of mobile or smart phones to development of brain cancer in adults over short follow up periods. However, data evaluating heavy use over a longer period of follow up is lacking, with effects on children and teens unclear at this point in time.
Another ongoing study in the UK, The COSMOS study, has been tracking nearly 290,000 adult mobile phone users for the past 30 years to evaluate any long term health consequences.
In addition, there are only two ongoing trials evaluating the effect of mobile phone use on development of cancer in children. Thus far, one study has revealed no link to cancer, and the other study is in progress.
Hopefully this study will produce tangible evidence to guide parents and teens about whether smartphones adversely affect cognitive development during early teenage years. While adults continue to use mobile devices daily for nearly every conceivable function, we need clear data to assess how mobile technology affects teens who are developing. This may then allow us to make educated decisions about when to introduce these devices for regular use in developing children and teens.