If statistics are any indication, you are on your smartphone for at least several hours each day. You are quite possibly reading this on your smartphone. They’ve improved to such an extent that they are basically pocket computers and can help solve any problem we come across. However, there are also tons of signals coming in and out of them constantly to communicate with the outside world. And because of the apps on them and their usefulness, some people are concerned about the long-term effects and potential addictiveness of smartphones.
Yet at the same time, smartphones are also sort of a technological boogeyman for those who don’t know enough about them. They can do anything and cause any type of harm, which is not the case. So how can we separate the truth from the misinformation? What do we know about the effects of cell phone usage? We investigated the matter as best as we could. Here’s what we found out:
First, to determine the effects and start the discussion, let’s go over exactly how they work:
Cell phones, in a sense, are an extension of radio technology. They utilize radio waves to send signals which are then converted into something we can understand. When you talk into a phone, the phone will convert the sound into radio waves, which are then sent to a nearby (relatively) cell tower. There is then a network of cell towers that transmit the signal to one that is near the person you are calling. All of this happens so fast that you barely realize it’s happening. It at once seems incredibly simple yet requires a ton of infrastructure and precision to get right. After decades, however, we have made vast improvements in coverage and signal quality.
There are a few things to keep in mind when talking about cell phones:
Naturally, this is a simplification of the process and there’s a lot more science and technical language that we could use, but we hope you get the idea. To learn more, we do encourage you to read other sources more extensively.
To talk about the topic, we need to address the main issue of why people would be interested to start with. Why is this a question to begin with? To start the discussion, we should first talk about what people are scared of regarding cell phones and smartphones.
For the most part, they are worried that cell phones might give them brain cancer or something similar, or that extended usage can cause long-term effects on the mind. They might also be worried about eye damage or long-term psychological effects. These are complex devices with a lot of functions with a lot of input by various groups. It only stands to reason that people would have concerns, many of them legitimate, given they are extensions of concerns with other forms of technology.
Another important note about smartphones: while you might worry about just the cell signals for things such as calling and texting, modern smartphones are likely giving off multiple signals. There is the standard cell signal, possibly multiple variations of remote data, WiFi signals, and Bluetooth signals from multiple devices. If you could see all of them, you would instantly be overwhelmed. And while there are differences in the wavelengths of the signals, in addition to other factors, if you’re worried about one, you might as well be worried about all of them.
If you are reading this article in public, look around you. How many smartphones and other WiFi or Bluetooth devices can you see? How many do you think exist that you can’t see? Practically every person has a smartphone, perhaps two if they have one for work. And one device can give off multiple types of signals.
While your personal usage does make an impact (it’s right next to your head after all), if signals in the air caused health problems we’d be far worse off than we are now, and there would be little we could do about it. So much is already connected to our lives that we could hardly imagine a drastic change, and the Internet of Things is advancing at a rapid pace. Your toaster may soon give off a wireless signal.
And before then, there were even concerns about radio waves. There is always a concern about the latest technology, justified or not. The key is in proper testing and studying long-term effects, not delaying the future (as it will come in across the world, one way or another).
This is all a lot to take in, but there is a key question we want to talk about at this point: while cell phones and smartphones are certainly advanced, is there anything unique about them? Are radio waves and EMFs unique to smartphones? Physically speaking, is there anything about them that presents a unique threat?
Our answer is not really. Radio waves have been with us far before cell phones and smartphones and we have recorded no adverse effects so far. The one major note is that cell phones are often very close to us and right next to our head, which blocks or absorbs up to have the signal being given at any time.
Therefore, if we consider cell phones dangerous, there’s a lot of other things we should be worried about as well, such as radios, televisions, and much more. While there are areas that specifically do not permit wireless or radioactivity (and therefore have no cell service), for the most part, we are all in a huge ocean of radio wave and wireless activity, whether we know it or not. In terms of waves and radiation, we might do better worrying about the sun than a cell phone tower.
While many people’s first thoughts might have been about cell signals and waves traveling through the air, there’s another thing to think about: is it healthy to be staring at a screen a foot away from our faces for hours each day?
The effects of extended screen usage are well-documented for many groups, including children. It is recommended that small children have limited screen time, and even older children shouldn’t be in front of a screen all day, whether it is a tablet, a television, or a smartphone. Developing minds might not be able to differentiate between the screen and the real world so well, which can have lasting consequences. Researchers are still determining the long-term consequences, whether certain or potential, but they can be rather serious.
For adults, extended screen time has been linked to sleep problems, neck or back pain (perhaps from leaning over too much), and depression and anxiety. How much of this might be correlation instead of causation remains to be seen, however.
In terms of our eyes, there are also potential effects we should watch out for, mostly revolving around potential strain. We know that staring at a screen all day (especially without a break) isn’t all that healthy and that there are some ways to reduce that strain. For one, taking breaks is recommended, and there are healthy alternatives to what we do on our smartphones. Using a TV instead of a small screen can help, for example.
The other major development that we would like to mention is that there is an ongoing debate about how addictive smartphones are. There are comics, jokes, and skits about how people (particularly young people, true or not) are effectively glued to their screens to the exclusion of the world around them. And while this might be a bit of an exaggeration, there is something to be said about how people are dependent and attached to their smartphones.
Studies into smartphone or screen addiction are still ongoing and the debates are still raging in many cases. While there are some clear cases of people who should perhaps cut back a bit, there are also a lot of people who don’t have an issue and use their phones just fine. Also, there’s nothing physically addictive about cell phones, though there could be signs of psychological addiction (much like gambling addiction.
There is currently no listing of cell phone or mobile device addiction in the DSM-5 as of this writing. However, there are general signs that someone has a problem:
If you have several or more of the above signs or know someone who does then it is advisable to get help dealing with the problem.
On top of the other effects, we might also wonder how smartphones and cell phones are making us in terms of our desire to see people. It can feel as though we are getting tons of social
Outside of uncertain physical health effects and potential addiction issues, there is another conversation that people are having about cell phone usage and more about the internet in general. While they supposedly allow us to stay in constant contact with each other, is using cell phones over time disconnecting us in some ways?
It’s a debate commonly had about social media. While we can message and post whatever we want, we don’t see everything, and we are constantly being bombarded with information and notifications that people who use many apps simply cannot keep up with. What we want to need to read is lost in a sea of noise. Many relationships become equalized online, and we may not spend as much time in person with people. And when we do spend time with people, are we paying attention to them or our phones?
Finally, texting has made people call less, and it is a less personal form of information. While it helps for short confirmations, it does give people fewer chances to talk and catch up. We have memes now, but we doubt they are a replacement for actual human connection.
Not everyone has this problem, of course. Some people adjust to smartphones better than others, and some people will just naturally not find as much need for a phone as others. More studies will need to be performed and this is a far more complicated issue than what a single device can contribute to, but the ease of smartphone access is putting it at the forefront of people’s minds.
Another effect of the digital age just as much as smartphones is the expectation to always be available, especially when it comes to working. A smartphone allows one to constantly be checking emails, constantly seeing if one can do more, review reports and papers accessible online, and so much more. The office is no longer necessary, but that also means that the office can effectively be anywhere. The smartphone, in this case, is a constant point of connection and has affected the workplace and work habits personally.
Some countries are striking back against this trend, but it remains a problem for many who already struggled with work-life balance. A new normal is yet to be determined, and that might not happen for some time.
Yet with all the information so far and studies are taken, there is one problem with research that we have not caught up with yet: we are using our smartphones progressively more each year. On top of this, technology isn’t always the same after every year. While a few minutes a day isn’t going to affect anyone, can we say the same about hours a day? Do we have the necessary data to decide about long-term effects? While we are not likely to have major immediate issues (we’d have noticed them by now), there is still so much we don’t know.
Take a quick look at usage rates over time:
As you can see, usage rates are going up, and more people are using them than ever before, both in the United States and around the world. And while the penetration rate of smartphones will reach a peak sooner rather than later given how cheap starter smartphones can be, people are likely to use them more than more. What the upper limit on usage will remain to be seen, especially as phones make their way into our daily lives more seamlessly. What will count as usage and what will not? Time will tell.
And one last note on this topic: different age groups use cell phones at different rates on average. Someone in their early 20s who grew up with smartphones will have a different history and usage pattern than someone who is 70 and only has one for emergencies. Data scientists and statisticians have a lot to deal with in this case, and there might not be a perfect model.
Something we would like to like to mention is that there is a lot of misinformation regarding cell phone usage and its potential health effects. Conspiracy theorists and questionable sources love to talk about the potential effects because practically everyone has one and they influence your daily life. There are plenty of posts that say we might be an immediate danger or we might be getting constantly spied on via our smartphones. If it's bad, someone online thinks smartphones are the cause, logical or not.
For example, take the idea that 5G technology will have negative health effects, which is one of the more popular theories as of late. While there are some concerns with any new technology, the tech has been examined and has been cleared for regular use. There is no benefit in having horribly sick population decades down the line. The liability would be a huge issue, and it would be the scandal of the century (just like if most other conspiracies were to be true).
As for threats of constant surveillance, that honestly depends on the country you live in, the smartphone you have, and the settings you use. Some more restrictive countries might monitor and to some degree control smartphone use, and some phones request more information than is necessary. However, most of this information is out in the open, and not necessarily a conspiracy. Furthermore, some information is needed to run apps. You need to provide location data to have a working GPS, for example.
When reading about smartphones online, we recommend the following:
However, another important point we would like to make is that we don’t have all the information yet when it comes to long-term cell phone and smartphone effects. Cell phones have only been around for a maximum of 30 years, and smartphones for less than that. Most of us did not get them when they first came out. And while 30 years is a long time, some signs might not show up until later or we might have not noticed the trends thus far. So, while we can certainly rule out short-term effects on the average person, there is also the truth that we don’t know everything yet.
Much like as discussed in the previous section, there is also the matter of changing technology. What if one type of cell phone was dangerous while another wasn’t? While much of the tech is the same, the exploding Samsung Note 7 incident did prove that not all phones are built the same. Product testing will always be a thing, but whether we see more or less of it, as well as potential warnings and changes, depends on what information comes in years or even decades from now.
There is so much information available about smartphones and cell phone signals that it can be hard to make heads or tails of what is true or not, and furthermore what effects will happen as a result of cell phone usage. In terms of signals there are no signs of harmful effects yet, but do note that all the information is not in. No matter the case, we hope that you don’t live your life in fear, use your smartphone wisely and thoughtfully, and enjoy the benefits it provides you.