There's an ongoing sleep study that is of great interest to me, and I expect to many others as well: for the first time, scientists will be examining the effects of mobile phone emissions on sleep and brain activity in children and teenagers. This study, recently underway, is being conducted by researchers at Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, at Australia's University of Wollongong. Researchers are investigating the effects RF EMF (radiofrequency electromagnetic field) exposure from mobile phones on the sleep, brain patterns, and cognitive function of children ages 10-18.
The RF EMF emissions from mobile phones and other technology have been examined in adults, but never before in children. Research has not demonstrated conclusive evidence that RF EMF emissions are a cause of adverse or long-term health effects in adults, but studies have shown that these emissions do affect brain activity and sleep patterns in adults. Now, for the first time, we'll have an opportunity to see what effects may exist in children. It is not my intention to stir alarm with this discussion--we all want our children to be safe and healthy, and the unknowns here are frightening for many, but there is no reason for panic. I think this is a deeply important avenue of research, one worthy of our attention. Beginning to grasp more comprehensively the effects of mobile phone use in children and teens is essential to parents' ability to guide their children toward using technology safely and responsibly.
Let's take a look at some of the evidence scientists have uncovered about the impact of RF EMF emissions on adults. Research has demonstrated that these emissions alter brain activity during at least some phases of sleep, and also on waking cognitive function. But the evidence at this point is mixed, and we haven't yet seen enough scientific research to form a clear picture of what exactly the effects are to sleep and to waking cognition. We don't yet know what long-term effects are likely from RF EMF emissions that come from mobile phones and other technology. Nor have we seen conclusive evidence of negative health effects from these emissions. Clearly, we have a lot still to learn about the impact of these emissions to which most of us are now routinely exposed.
Some studies have shown that RF EMF emissions alter sleeping brain activity, increasing the frequency of brain waves during non-REM sleep after nighttime exposure. Other research has shown alterations to sleep architecture--the cyclical structure of sleep phases we experience throughout the course of a night--specifically with changes to the amount of time spent in slow-wave sleep. There is research that indicates RF EMF exposure may lead to changes in waking cognitive performance. The cognitive changes observed in studies include reduced reaction speed, increased accuracy of working memory, and diminished performance on motor tasks. Several studies suggest that there is a high degree of individual variability in the brain's response to RF EMF exposure, meaning that there may be a significant range of difference among individuals in their response to the same level of exposure.
When it comes to the possible impact of RF EMF exposure, there exist special concerns and considerations for children, whose brains and nervous systems are still developing, and therefore may have heightened sensitivity to these emissions.
Whether, and how much, mobile phone emissions are altering sleep, brain function, and cognitive performance, there is substantial research and reporting that shows how the presence of phones and other technology in our nighttime lives is hurting sleep and waking performance. A recent report out of Singapore found that half the students' queried said they slept poorly because of using their smartphone or tablet just before bed. This aligns with other studies and reports indicating smartphones and other devices are wreaking havoc with sleep. Nighttime smartphone and tablet use expose adults (and children) to artificial light and to high concentrations of blue wavelength light, which is particularly effective at suppressing melatonin and causing delay and disruption to sleep. Smartphone use in the evenings is linked to delayed sleep onset--the time it takes to fall asleep--as well as disruptions to circadian timing, reduced daytime alertness, and diminished next-day performance at work. Not surprisingly, the sleep-disruptive effects of smartphone use are reported most frequently by younger people, who are often the heaviest consumers of technology. In children, sleeping near a small screen--including smartphones--as well as higher amounts of overall screen time, are both associated with less overall sleep time.
We have some waiting to do before we see the results of the ongoing RF EMF study on children. But that doesn't mean you have to wait idly. There are a number of steps you can take today to help ensure your child's use of mobile phones isn't disrupting sleep:
Set up an electronic curfew. One hour before bedtime, shut down all electronics--that includes smartphones, tablets, computers, even TV. This will give kids a chance to wind down before bed, and avoid the stimulating and melatonin-suppressing effects of artificial light exposure that are counterproductive to sleep.
Create a central charging station. Identify a place in your home where cell phones, tablets, and other devices can charge. Make sure your charging station is removed from all sleeping areas. Commit to charging your devices and your children's devices in this one, single place, and you'll avoid having phones and other devices charging on the bedside.
Don't use smartphones as alarm clocks. The seemingly endless utility of smartphones is a great part of their appeal, but sleeping with your phone next to your head so you may use it as an alarm simply isn't necessary. The same goes for your child. Invest in old-fashioned alarm clocks if you need an alarm to wake you or if your kids need one for their rooms.
Use earbuds. Limit the amount of time that a smartphone is physically close to your head by using hands-free earbuds and microphones. Make sure your children use ear buds or other hands' free devices for talking on their phones whenever possible.
Navigating technology with children and teenagers isn't easy, especially when it comes to nighttime and sleep. Nor is it easy to struggle with the unknowns that exist around the health and safety of the technologies that populate our lives, and the lives of our children. While we wait for answers, moderation and common sense can go a long way to help kids and teenagers from overexposure to phones and other technology, which will help protect their sleep at night and their ability to learn and perform during the day.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™