how do cell phones affect a child's brain
What is cell phone radiation, and is it bad for health? Learn about the effects on children’s brains and how you can limit phone use

Cell phones emit a type of radiation referred to as nonionizing radiation, which is a low-energy radiation that may or may not harm the brain in the long run. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has therefore classified radiofrequency (RF) radiation as a “possible human carcinogen.” 

While there is no conclusive evidence regarding how badly cell phones affect a child’s brain, some studies have shown worrying findings. Preliminary data from an Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study found that increased screen time, including time spent on cell phones, is not just bad for the brain but can affect a child’s psychology, thinking patterns, sleep cycles, and behavior, shortening their attention span and potentially encouraging violent or aggressive behavior.

Brain scans have shown that kids who spent excessive time on their screens had a premature thinning of the cortex. The cortex is the outermost layer of the brain that is involved in processing different types of information from all five senses. Cortical thinning at a young age thus indicates that children are maturing earlier from the use of cell phones.

Do cell phones cause brain cancer?

Several studies have been conducted to determine whether cell phone use can cause cancer, although they were unable to establish clear evidence. One study found a slight increase of glioma, a type of brain cancer, in a small group of people who spent a considerable amount of time on their screens. However, other studies did not find anything similar.

As of now, healthcare organizations such as the CDC and FDA have not issued any statements regarding the link between cell phones and increased risk of cancer, including brain cancer. Research is underway to investigate where there is a link between the two.

How much screen time is recommended for children?

Until specific data is released regarding the effect of cell phone use on brain health, it’s best for parents to limit screen time for their children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggests that:

  • Children younger than 18 months old should not be exposed to any kind of screen time.
  • Parents of children who are 18-24 months old should choose only high-quality programming and watch it with their child. They should not allow their child to watch anything alone.
  • For children ages 2-5, parents should allow them to watch only educational, prosocial, and nonviolent programs. Screen time should not go beyond one hour, and parents should also watch along with their children.

How to limit cell phone radiation for you and your children

Cell phones do come with a small amount of radiation and exposure to any radiation for prolonged periods of time is not good. So it’s important for parents to not treat cell phones as toys to play with freely. Here are a few tips that families should adopt while using cell phones:

  • Use text messages instead of the call feature.
  • If calls are frequent or long, use the speaker mode or hands-free equipment.
  • Maintain a distance of an inch or more between the head and cell phone when talking.
  • Restrict cell phone use to only essential calls, and keep calls short.
  • Avoid using cell phones or text messaging while driving.
  • Make calls only when the cell phone shows maximum bars (fewer bars mean the cell phone will emit more radiation in its struggle to get a strong signal).
  • Avoid making calls in metal-enclosed spaces, such as cars, elevators, trains, and buses (metal obstruction will make the cell phone work harder to get signal).

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Medically Reviewed on 8/4/2021
References
American Academy of Pediatrics. Cell Phone Radiation & Children’s Health: What Parents Need to Know. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/all-around/Pages/Cell-Phone-Radiation-Childrens-Health.aspx

Council on Communications and Media. Media and young minds. Pediatrics. 2016;138(5):e20162591. https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/138/5/e20162591

Paulus MP, Squeglia LM, Bagot K, et al. Screen Media Activity and Brain Structure in Youth: Evidence for Diverse Structural Correlation Networks From the ABCD Study. Neuroimage. 2019;185:140-153. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30339913/

American Academy of Pediatrics. Healthy Digital Media Use Habits for Babies, Toddlers & Preschoolers. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/Media/Pages/Healthy-Digital-Media-Use-Habits-for-Babies-Toddlers-Preschoolers.aspx