It’s hard to remember a world before smart phones, iPads and other similar gadgets. They may be fun to use and make our lives easier, but at what cost to our health?
Electromagnetic radiation, or EMR, is the radiant energy released by various electromagnetic processes such as infrared, visible light, radio and x-rays. The effects of EMR on biological systems depend both upon the radiation’s power and its frequency, with higher frequency radiation being more likely to cause harm than lower frequency radiation. Non-ionising radiation given out by mobile phones and other devices is considered lower frequency, while ionising radiation, emitted from sources such as UV and x-rays, is considered higher frequency.
We are ultimately electrical beings, and as such we are affected by the electromagnetic fields in the environment we live in. EMR is something we are all exposed to, to a greater or lesser degree. Indeed experts estimate that there are almost as many mobile phone subscriptions as there are people in the world, meaning the amount of EMR has grown dramatically in the past twenty years, and continues to increase year on year.
It’s not just mobile phones that emit EMR; mobile phone masts, cordless phones, Wi-Fi routers, iPads and computers, all contribute to EMR in our environment. And some people appear to be more sensitive to EMR than others, with a condition termed EMR sensitivity featuring symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, digestive disorders, sleep disturbance, memory problems, anxiety and heart palpitations.
Do mobile phones increase risk of cancer?
Knowledge about how mobile phone radiation impacts on health is still growing, and the available research is limited and inconclusive. While some studies have shown no negative impact on health from mobile phone exposure; other animal and observational studies have found links between mobile phone usage and brain cancer, leading to the WHO determining mobile phones as ‘possibly carcinogenic’. Dr. Martin Blank, Ph.D., from the Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics at Colombia University, along with a group of scientists from around the world, is making an international appeal to the United Nations about the dangers of using various electromagnetic emitting devices, like mobile phones and WiFi.
It is worth noting that children have thinner skin and bones, and as such absorb significantly more EMR radiation than adults do, especially from mobile phones placed close to the head. Limiting their exposure seems prudent considering the possibility of increased risk of brain cancer.
How else does technology affect our health?
Modern lifestyles are at odds with the world we adapted to survive in over millions of years. We can now access food, light and entertainment 24 hours a day, and many have fallen into the trap of regular, or almost continuous, interaction with electronic devices such as smart phones or tablets. Our reliance on them has been likened to an addiction, and in fact smart phone addiction is recognised as a clinical condition in China. Using devices like tablets and smart phones has been found to reduce face-to-face contact and quality of conversation, and encourage sedentary lifestyles and ‘cyber-based overload’, making people feel compelled to multitask. Such behaviour may cause isolation, anxiety, a reduced ability to relax, reduced exposure to daylight and exercise. These factors may contribute to mood disorders, altered hormone secretion and stress-related conditions.
When the body’s only source of light is sunlight, the hypothalamus sets its sleep patterns according to when it is light or dark outside. When it starts getting dark, the hypothalamus signals to the body to increase levels of the sleep hormone, melatonin. In the morning, when light is sensed, the body is told to warm up and to produce hormones, like cortisol, that wake the body up. When artificial light is used, the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle becomes disrupted. Even standard room lighting can suppress melatonin production, according to a study published in the Endocrine Society’s Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. But the short-wavelength blue light produced by electronic devices has been found to suppress the production of melatonin more than any other type of light. Such blue light has been shown to elevate cortisol levels, boost attention, reaction times and mood, according to Harvard Medical School. This is more appropriate in the daytime when the body needs to be alert, but not at nighttime when the body should be gearing up for sleep. Increased cortisol levels at any time of the day, but especially in the evening, disrupts and over-taxes the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, a complex endocrine stress-support system essential to our survival and wellbeing.
How to use technology in a more healthy way
- Use a headset when talking on mobile phones
- Limit children’s exposure to mobile phones and devices
- Avoid exposure to blue light from mobile phones, computers and tablet screens for at least an hour before bed, ideally two.
- If you need to use them, dim the brightness and use either orange-tinted glasses or download a programme, like flux, that reduces the blue light emitted.
- Take a break from all screens and devices regularly – whether a day, week, or even longer every once in a while.
- Set times to check and respond to emails and messages and avoid checking them in between.
Written by Emma Rushe