If you own a cell phone, like 91 percent of all American adults, I don’t have to convince you of the benefits. Especially if you own a smart phone, you know how much easier it can make your life. In fact, calling it a phone is like calling Handel’s Messiah a song. We use our pocket pals for calling, texting, emailing, getting directions, accessing the internet, listening to music, playing games, watching videos, app’ing apps. You name it, the newer gadgets can do it better.
It is not all good, however. Cell phones can be dangerous, physically, mentally and socially. I’ll discuss them in that order.
Cell phones emit a form of radiation called radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. Electromagnetic radiation can be categorized into two types: ionizing (e.g., x-rays, radon and cosmic rays) and non-ionizing (e.g., radiofrequency and extremely low-frequency).
Exposure to ionizing radiation is known to increase the risk of cancer. The data on non-ionizing radiation is still accumulating, but it is enough to raise a warning flag.
In 2011, the World Health Organization International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as Group 2B, which means “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” This is based on studies suggesting an increased risk of glioma, a very nasty kind of brain cancer.
Dr. Jonathan Samet, overall Chairman of the Working Group for the IARC, stated that “the evidence, while still accumulating, is strong enough to support a conclusion and the 2B classification. The conclusion means that there could be some risk, and therefore we need to keep a close watch for a link between cell phones and cancer risk.”
The one thing radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation is known to do for sure is to cause heat. One study showed an elevated brain temperature in people who made long phone calls, on the side of the brain where they held their phone. The long term effect of baked brain bits is not yet known.
A study published last year in the Journal of Craniofacial Surgery linked cell phone radiation to decreased bone density in the pelvis, and a 2008 study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic found that it lowers fertility in men.
As you can see, the evidence of direct harm is trickling in. In 2010, a large prospective cohort study of cell phone use and its possible long-term health effects was launched in Europe. This study, known as COSMOS, has enrolled approximately 290,000 cell phone users aged 18 years or older and will follow them for 20 to 30 years. Participants will complete a questionnaire about their health, lifestyle and current and past cell phone use. This information will be supplemented with information from health records and cell phone records.
Until we know for sure, I recommend that you minimize close contact between your phone and your head. Not to mention your gonads. It is better off in your backpack or purse than on your person. Also, as you probably know, talking or texting while driving is now against the law in New Mexico, but if you decide to do it anyway, know that there is a surge in radiation when your phone makes a transition from one cell tower to the next as you travel, and that earpieces emit radiation even when the call is over.
More harmful than direct contact is danger from distraction, especially for drivers. This is where our recent law came from. Driving distractions can be visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel) or cognitive (taking your mind off driving). Using a cell phone does all three.
The CDC did a study in 2011 analyzing distracted driving and the use of cell phones in the U.S. and other countries. They found that 69 percent of drivers in the United States ages 18-64 reported that they had talked on their cell phone while driving within the 30 days before they were surveyed. In Europe, this percentage ranged from 21 percent in the United Kingdom to 59 percent in Portugal.
31 percent of U.S. drivers ages 18-64 reported that they had read or sent text messages or email messages while driving at least once within the 30 days before they were surveyed. In Europe, this percentage ranged from 15 percent in Spain to 31 percent in Portugal.
The Pew Research Center reports that each day in the United States, more than 9 people are killed and more than 1,060 people are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver. The National Safety Council estimates at least 28 percent of all traffic crashes – or at least 1.6 million crashes each year – involve drivers talking or texting on cell phones.
Numbers can be impressive but statistics can also numb the brain, so think about it this way. Do you want someone’s death on your conscience because you couldn’t keep your hands (and eyes and mind) off your phone? If the new $25 fine doesn’t deter you, maybe that will.
Protect your own safety too. Please don’t use the phone when you drive, or when you walk, bike or ride your skateboard. Someone was killed just this past week when she walked out into traffic while texting, not far from campus. Don’t let it be you next.
The second category of harm I mentioned is mental. The rest of this article is just my opinion, but this is the opinion page after all. My smart phone is smarter than I am by a long shot, and the more I rely on it, the dumber I feel. Who needs to think when your device will do it for you? Why try to remember something when you can just look it up?
I’m sure you have heard the admonition, “Use it or lose it.”
While I am not a fan of memorizing useless facts, I do think there is a chance that the sharper edges of our minds will become dulled from disuse. Is there an International Agency for Research on Dumbing Down? There oughtta be. Try thinking first.
Finally, I mentioned social harm. We have all seen or been in a group of people all bent over their device, oblivious to others. And sometimes it is more comfortable to just text someone rather than risk talking to them face to face. Are we in danger of losing our social skills and ability to really converse and connect with others?
I went to lunch with some friends recently. Everyone put their phones in a basket in the middle of the table, with the admonition that whoever touched their phone before the meal was over had to pay for everyone else’s lunch. We had a wonderful uninterrupted conversation. I thought it was a brilliant idea.
What about truly experiencing life as it happens? When we have a quiet moment, do we check Facebook or play Candy Crush instead of enjoying the sun on our face or exchanging a smile? Do we miss opportunities because we aren’t paying attention? Are we so busy plugging in that we check out?
All technological advances have pros and cons. Cell phones are no different. Use yours with discretion, put it away when it could cause danger and once in a while try turning it off and smelling the roses.
Dr. Peggy Spencer is a physician at Student Health and Counseling. She is also co-author of the book “50 Ways to Leave Your 40s.” Email your questions directly to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be considered, and all questioners will remain anonymous.