What do mobiles do to children’s brains, asks study

Scientists have launched the world’s biggest investigation into the effects of mobile phones on the developing brains of children.

Most children start to own a mobile phone at around 11 or 12. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (Scamp) will focus on mental functions such as memory and attention which continue to develop into the teenage years.

About 2,500 schoolchildren will be tested at age 11 and 12 and undergo a further assessment two years later. Most children start to own a mobile phone at around 11 or 12.

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More than 160 schools in the outer London area have received invitations to enrol pupils into the study, commissioned by the Department of Health.

Professor Patrick Haggard, deputy director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London and chairman of the Scamp steering committee, said: “I am delighted that the UK is contributing to this high-priority research with the launch of Scamp.

“This study has two particularly valuable aspects: it attempts to estimate children’s exposure to radio frequency fields as precisely as possible, and it uses a carefully designed suite of tests to measure many of the key cognitive functions that are developing during adolescence.”

An estimated 70 per cent of 11 to 12-year-olds in the UK now own a mobile phone, rising to 90 per cent by age 14.

While there is no convincing evidence that mobile phones affect adult health, experts believe children may be more vulnerable due to their developing nervous systems and thinner skulls, which absorb higher levels of radio energy.

The World Health Organisation has ranked studies of the effects of mobile phones on children and adolescents as a “highest priority research need”.

Current UK health guidelines say that children under 16 should be encouraged to use mobile phones only for short, essential calls and, where possible, to use a hands-free kit or to send text messages.

Scamp’s principal investigator, Dr Mireille Toledano from Imperial College London, said: “This advice to parents is based on the precautionary principle, given in the absence of available evidence, and not because we have evidence of harmful effects.

“As mobile phones are a new and widespread technology central to our lives, the Scamp study is important in order to provide the evidence base with which to inform policy and through which parents and their children can make informed life choices.

“By assessing children in year seven and again in year nine, we will be able to see how cognitive abilities develop in relation to changing use of mobile phones and other wireless technologies.”

Co-investigator Professor Paul Elliott, director of the MRC-PHE Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College, said: “Scientific evidence available to date shows no association between exposure to radio frequency waves from mobile phone use and brain cancer in adults in the short term.

“But the evidence regarding long-term, heavy use and children’s use is limited and less clear.”