The health hazard in your pocket


From ringxiety to effects on memory and hearing: the impacts of cell phone usage

We’ve all had a baby boomer scornfully tell us to “put that phone away!” or heard a family member ranting about how “in my day, we actually talked to each other face to face!” We tend to brush off these comments, but do our elders have a point? Is cell phone use affecting our physical and mental well-being?

The prevalence of mobile phone use has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, and many of us who were lucky to have a flip phone in middle school are seeing preteens with iPhones. When trends catch on this quickly, it is often difficult to complete research on long term implications until it is too late.

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Cell phones emit electromagnetic waves through radio frequency. Mobile phone usage has been classified by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as ‘possibly carcinogenic to humans.” While this may sound scary, it is two steps below alcohol, wood dust and processed meat on the IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. Presently, there is inadequate evidence to make concrete claims on whether or not cell phone usage is carcinogenic. It is difficult to distinguish correlation from causation in these studies, and there are many other factors impacting cancer risk.

If cell phones are stored in front pockets, or near the groin area, sperm quantity, quality, and motility has been shown to be compromised in those exposed to the electromagnetic waves for more than four hours per day. Again, like many other studies involving the impact of cell phone use on health, long term effects have not been studied. In rat studies, cell phone waves have been shown to negatively impact memory. If this effect translates to humans, this could spell disaster for your exam grades. Mobile phone use for more than three years has also been shown to delay auditory neural transmission - aka it may be difficult to hold a conversation and make meaning out of what you hear.

Cell phones are also pretty disgusting. We carry them around in our grubby hands, set them down on all kinds of nasty surfaces, take them with us to go poop, lest we get bored in there, and then place them near our faces. A 2011 study found that mobile phones contained 18% more bacteria than a toilet flush handle. Texting and scrolling through social media for hours can also lead to carpal tunnel and tendonitis. Cell phone use has also been linked to increased pedestrian injury in crosswalks, and the increase in texting and driving has deadly consequences.

In terms of psychological impact, mobile phone addiction is a huge concern. When not in contact with their cell phones, participants in various studies experienced symptoms such as sleep disorders, anxiety, irritability, digestive problems, phantom vibration (i.e. feeling their phone vibrate when it was not in their pocket or had not gone off), and ringxiety (i.e. checking their phone constantly, anticipating a text or call). Mobile phone use is also associated with in-creased stress, symptoms of depression, and sleep disturbances, which can wreak havoc on your mental health. Productivity is also decreased as a result of mobile phone use, which cause increased stress and anxiety, a concept us students are very familiar with. Comparing yourself to friends and followers on Facebook and Instagram can also lead to decreased self-worth and increased depression, so much so that the term ‘Facebook Depression’ was coined in 2011 as a clinical diagnosis.

So what is to be done about these electronic, life ruining boxes? Will they take the same trajectory as tobacco? First, they’re considered cool, and a status symbol, then quitting is recommended and health warnings are issued. Will the final step be implementing policies hiking taxes on cell phones and regulating when and where they can be used? Or will the technology become so advanced that we have mobile access integrated into all aspects of our lives? All we can do is stay tuned to our social media feeds and news apps to find out.

Data from Kim, Kabir, & Jahan, S. (2016). The use of cell phone and insight into its potential human health impacts. Environmental Monitoring and Assessment, 188(4), 1-11.