Children use cell phones to watch TV, play games, make phone calls, and send text messages. Many older kids and teens have their own cell phones, which they are attached to 24/7. But are there risks to such frequent use by children, and if so is that different than the risks for adults?
Cell phones emit a type of radiation that is known as Radio Frequency-Electromagnetic Radiation (RF-EMR), also referred to as microwave radiation. There have been concerns from the scientific community about whether or not cell phones are safe. Cancer is a particular concern, but since cancers take 10-20 years to develop and children’s frequent cell phone use is a relatively recent development, there are more questions than answers. To read more about whether we should be worried about cell phone radiation in general, read our article here.
There are several studies of the impact of cell phone radiation on children. Here are some of the conclusions so far:
- A study published in 2018 revealed that a child’s brain absorbs 2-3 times more radiation than an adult’s, particularly when a cell phone is position next to the ear or in front of the eyes to view virtual reality.1 Similarly, an earlier study reported that, “in general and on average, children suffer a higher exposure of their brain regions than adults” because children have proportionally smaller heads and brains, yet receive the same levels of cell phone radiation as adults.2 The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees, saying that “when used by children, the average RF energy deposition is two times higher in the brain and 10 times higher in the bone marrow of the skull, compared with mobile phone use by adults.”3
- Research also suggests that people who begin using cell phones (and cordless landline phones) before the age of 20 are at an even higher risk of developing brain tumors than people who begin using these wireless phones as adults.4 This is because of the closer proximity of the source of radiation to the brain of kids (they have thinner tissues and bones than adults).
- Moreover, cell phone exposure could affect children’s behavior.5 The children in the study who were hyperactive or had emotional or behavioral problems, including trouble getting along with other kids, were much more likely to have mothers who used cell phones during pregnancy. After accounting for other factors that could affect behavior, the children of these mothers were 80% more likely to have behavioral problems than children whose mothers rarely or didn’t use cell phones. However, this is difficult to study because mothers who use cell phones frequently during pregnancy or after the baby is born, may pay less attention to their children, resulting in the children’s bad behavior. More research is needed to understand the link between mother’s cell phone use and children’s behavior.
- Children that used cell phones more were more likely to have ADHD. Although the link to ADHD was only for children who also had high levels of lead in their blood, when researchers adjusted for blood lead level, they still found that ADHD was more likely for children who made more phone calls and spent a longer amount of time on the phone.6 This study was conducted in Korea, so it would be important to do similar research on children living in other countries.
- A 2014 article reviewing studies on children and their cell phone use found that the younger the child, the greater the risk of brain cancer and brain tumors. The same article also points to studies concluding that cell phones are associated with an increased risk of breast cancer (due to adolescents putting cell phones in their bras), parotid (salivary) gland tumors, and sperm damage for adolescents and adults.7
Reactions to Research About Cell Phone Radiation
In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, which sets the standards for cell phone radiation in the United States, and recommended that they reevaluate these standards since this had not been done since 1996. Their reasoning is that “children, however, are not little adults and are disproportionately impacted by all environmental exposures, including cell phone radiation.” But, as of 2019, the FCC still says that there is no evidence between wireless device use and health problems and continues to uphold the regulations from 1996.8 Other countries have taken a different approach. As of 2014,Turkey, Belgium, Australia, and France have warned about the dangers of children’s cell phone usage.9 In 2021, the Environmental Working Group analyzed toxicology data and called on the FCC to limit the acceptable Specific Absorption Rate (a measure of radiation emitted by devices) for children to 0.2-0.4 milliwatts per kilogram, which is 200-400 times lower than the current federal limit.10 In 2022, the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released a report calling for the U.S. government to fund large-scale research programs to understand how low-dose radiation affects the risk for cancer or other diseases.11
Scientists disagree on whether cell phone radiation are causing cancer or other health problems. Since so many children and adults use cell phones so frequently, it is difficult to do a study comparing high and low cell phone usage. And since brain tumors and other cancers usually do not develop until several decades after the initial exposure, it could be years before we know how risky cell phones are and under what circumstances.8 This is why it is imperative that the U.S. begins funding long-term, large-scale research to determine whether this low-dose radiation exposure is affecting our health, as recommended by the National Academies.11
Unfortunately, by the time we find out, many people will have been harmed if cell phones are found to be dangerous. Here are some precautionary tips on how to protect your children from the health issues that could be connected to cell phone radiation.10
- Turn airplane mode on when giving a child a technology device or when a cell phone is near a pregnant abdomen, to prevent exposure to radiation.
- Turn off wireless networks and devices to decrease your family’s radiation exposure whenever you aren’t actively using them. As an easy first step, turn your Wi-Fi router off at bedtime.
- Decrease use of phones or wifi where wireless coverage is difficult, in order to avoid an increase in radiation exposure.
- Use the speaker phone or a plug in earpiece when you use a cell phone. To protect children from radiation, they should not use cell phones except in emergency and should use the speaker phone.
- Increase the distance between you and your cell phone whenever it is on, to reduce your exposure to radiation emitted. For example, do not use a cell phone while a child is on your lap, and do not carry your cell phone in your baby carrier, crib, or pockets. When the phone is on, tell your kids to put it in a backpack as far from their body as possible (such as an outside pocket) or on the desk or other furniture at home, instead of holding it or carrying it in a pocket.
- Read the fine print: All device manufacturers advise that cell phones should be at least 5 millimeters, or about ¼ of an inch away from your body or brain. With the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6s, the company advises users to keep the cell phone at least 10 millimeters, or about half an inch, away from your body or brain. See the safe distance for your phone. For iPhone 5 and iPhone 6, this is located under: Settings -> General -> About -> Legal -> RF Exposure.
- Share this info with your friends, family, and schools so that they can make these simple changes as well.
All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
- Fernández C, de Salles AA, Sears ME, Morris RD, Davis DL. Absorption of wireless radiation in the child versus adult brain and eye from cell phone conversation or virtual reality. Environmental research. 2018 Nov 1;167:694-9.
- Christ A, Gosselin MC, Christopoulou M, K’uhn S, & Kuster N. (2010 Jan.). Age dependent tissue-specific exposure of cell phone users. Physics in Medicine and Biology, 55: 1767-1783. Retrieved from http://iopscience.iop.org/0031-9155/55/7/001/pdf/0031-9155_55_7_001.pdf.
- Block, R. (12 July 2012). American Academy of Pediatrics letter to the FCC. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/104230961/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-letter-to-the-FCC
- Hardell L, Carlberg M, Hansson Mild K. (2009) Epidemiological evidence for an association between use of wireless phones an tumor diseases. Pathophysiology 16 (2-3): 113-122.]
- Hardell L, Hansson Mild K, Carlberg M, Hallquist A. (2004) Cellular and cordless telephones and the association with brain tumours in different age group. Archives of Environmental Health 59 (3): 132-137.
- Divan HA, Kheifets L, Obel C, Olsen J. (2008) Prenatal and Postnatal Exposure to Cell Phone Use and Behavioral Problems in Children. Epidemiology 19(4): 523-529.
- Byun, YH, Ha, M, Kwon, HJ et al (2013 Mar 21). Mobile phone use, blood lead levels, and attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms in children: a longitudinal study. PLoS One. 2013;8(3):e59742. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0059742.
- Federal Communications Commission (FCC). (2019). Radio Frequency Safety. https://www.fcc.gov/general/radio-frequency-safety-0.
- Morgan, L, Kesari, S, Davis, D (2014). Why children absorb more microwave radiation than adults: The consequences. Journal of Microscopy and Ultrastructure 2(4): 197-204. doi:10.1016/j.jmau.2014.06.005
- Stephenson J. Expert Panel Urges Aggressive Research Initiative to Study Health Effects of Low-Dose Radiation. JAMA Health Forum. 2022;3(6):e222406. doi:10.1001/jamahealthforum.2022.2406
- Environmental Health Trust (2015). Wireless and Children. Retrieved from: http://ehtrust.org/cell-phones-radiation-3/wireless-and-children-3/