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Missed Connections?

An ongoing study aims to shed light on cell phone use and childhood brain development

By Erin J. Bernard

A friend’s toddler recently got hold of her cell phone and managed to snap a selfie, place a call to Russia, and then disable her device completely – in just two unsupervised minutes.

Our children’s fascination with grown-up technologies can be frustrating, but it’s hardly surprising: by now, the newborn cell phone snapshot is a cultural ritual, and babies begin making grabs for mom or dad’s iPhones as soon as they’ve mastered the pincer grasp. By elementary school, many kids even have their very own mobile devices.

Much has been made of the social consequences of children growing up with phones attached to their ears, but should parents worry about physical risks, too?

The science is out on how prolonged exposure to the radio waves emitted by cells might affect the human brain. So far, researchers have found no clear link between heavy cell phone use and ill health, but the vast majority of existing studies have focused on adult brains.

Now, changing norms are forcing to the fore new questions about how these same behaviors might affects kids, whose brains and nervous systems aren’t fully formed.

Are the risks different for developing brains? Are they serious? And what happens when a human is exposed to radio waves over the course of an entire lifetime?

A large-scale examination of how cell phone use affects children’s brains recently launched at Imperial College London, and researchers hope the results will provide some long-overdue insights.

Called the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP), it’s the largest study ever of its kind to focus specifically on memory and attention in children.

For three-years, SCAMP will track the brain development of 2,500 11-to-12-year-old British children, 70 percent of whom now own mobile phones.

Numbers are even higher across the pond: according a 2013 Pew Research Center study on American Teens and Technology, 78 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds have cell phones. And the National Consumers League reported in a 2012 study that six out of 10 American kids ages 8-12 also have them.

By measuring more precisely just how much radiofrequency cell phones emit and by carefully monitoring the development of cognitive functions, SCAMP researchers hope to gather better information for guiding families when it comes to cell-phone use.

Study participants will provide information about phone habits, well being, and lifestyle. This self-reported data will be supplemented with computerized assessments that measure cognitive functions like attention and memory.

The study closes in 2017. In the meantime, moderation is probably wise when it comes to your kids’ mobile habits.

In a statement released by Imperial College London, study co-investigator Paul Elliot said that while there is no cause for parental panic, the jury is still definitely out on the safety of cell phones: “Scientific evidence available to date is reassuring and shows no association between exposure to radiofrequency waves from mobile phone use and brain cancer in adults in the short term (less than 10 years of use). But the evidence available regarding long term heavy use and children’s use is limited and less clear.”

To find out more, visit http://www.scampstudy.org.

Sources:
Imperial College London: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_20-5-2014-9-35-6
And  http://www.scampstudy.org
Pew Research Center:
http://www.pewinternet.org/files/old-media/Files/Reports/2013/PIP_TeensandTechnology2013.pdf
National Consumers League:
http://www.nclnet.org/tweens_and_cell_phones_a_guide_for_responsible_use

Posted on Sep 16, 2014

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