Do Electronic Devices Mess with Your Brain?

As you read these words, radiation — invisible waves of widely variable wavelengths — is bombarding every part of your body from every direction. It is passing through your head, neck, chest, abdomen and extremities at the speed of light. It comes in many different forms, from the natural light and ultraviolet radiation produced by the sun to the radio waves produced by now-ubiquitous terrestrial transmitters.

Freaked out yet?

We can’t stop the sun from emitting radiation, but we can control the myriad electronic devices that produce mostly long-wave (i.e., radio) radiation. Many consumer advocates and health professionals believe we should. But does the science support this? Put another way, do electronic devices really mess with our brains in a dangerous way?

Cancer Risks?

Consumer advocates continue to express concerns about the long-term cancer risks associated with some common transmitting devices, particularly cell phones and smartphones. However, it’s far from clear that these devices, which primarily emit long-wave radiation (radio waves), have any measurable impact on long-term cancer risk absent other variables.

Fortunately, consumer electronics don’t produce large amounts of short-wave radiation, such as X-rays and gamma rays. When it comes to long-term cancer risk (and, in high doses, acute short-term illness and death), short-wave radiation — such as X-rays and gamma rays (super short waves that mostly emanate from dying stars and other interstellar sources and can’t penetrate earth’s atmosphere in large quantities)— is exponentially more dangerous than radio waves emitted by transmitting devices. That’s why you’re required to wear a lead shield during an X-ray exam, for instance.

The Hidden Perils of Extended Screen Time

Radiation aside, consumer electronics may have more insidious risks. One that deserves special attention: the impact of extended “screen time” — engagement with screened devices, such as smartphones, tablets, televisions and laptops — on the emotional development of young children.

A study from Public Health England, reported at length in The Guardian, found that children who spent more time playing computer games (an obvious measure of screen time) scored lower on tests of physical and emotional well being than children who used screened devices sparingly. Although the study wasn’t peer-reviewed and had some important methodological shortcomings, it adds to a growing body of evidence suggesting screen time negatively impacts young children.

Sleep-Wake Impacts

Screened devices affect users of all ages in a related, equally insidious way. Visible light emissions from most screened devices concentrate at the blue end of the spectrum, mimicking the character of natural morning light. After dark, this can alter your body’s rhythms — telling the unconscious part of your brain that controls sleeping and waking that it’s time to get up, when it’s really time to go to bed. To minimize the negative effects of blue light exposure, some experts recommend curtailing screened device use in bed.

Can We Compartmentalize Our Digital Lives?

Our species hasn’t yet produced an evolutionary response to the digital revolution. Unfortunately, we are clearly hardwired to respond to our indispensible electronic devices in ways we never intended, creating a new challenge for our connected society.

Even if it’s not plausible for most adults to quit their smartphones cold turkey, there’s much to be said for limiting screen time, setting up “screen-free” zones in bedrooms and other places, and ensuring that children develop a healthy appreciation for non-electronic pursuits. Our collective health — and sanity — could depend on it.