Cell Phones Are More Annoying Than They Are Dangerous

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New research suggests that they probably don't give us brain tumors, don't lead to car crashes, and aren't even responsible for all that sexting.

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Over the last decade, cell phone use has grown exponentially. Today, it's estimated that about nine in 10 Americans own at least one cell phone (and most have smartphones). With increased use come questions concerning the safety of these mobile devices. Many have been concerned, or even panicked, over the possibility of cell phones increasing one's risk for brain cancer. Also disturbing is the fact that people are talking -- or perhaps worse, texting (DOC) -- while driving, and getting into accidents because of it. And then there's sexting, which has a "reputation as a teenage pastime," according to the New York Times. Brain tumors, car accidents, and virtual sex contact: Cell phones seem to carry a wealth of hazards.

However -- and there may still be some lingering questions -- more studies are coming in to suggest that cell phones aren't as strongly connected with any of these phenomena as we once thought. Other evidence illustrates that they're just as annoying and sidetracking as ever, though, so if you want to continue to hold a grudge against them, you're within your rights.

Although the risks may not be as great as once imagined, cell phones could theoretically pose dangers both physical and psychological.

A recent study found that cell phone users have no more risk of developing brain tumors than non-users. The research examined a large number of people over a relatively long period of time: The 13-year-long study followed 360,000 people, and found that there was only a slight risk for one type of tumor (glioma), but after the first five years of follow-up this risk was gone, a finding that has been suggested by other studies. Participants showed increased risk for no other types of brain tumors. While it is notoriously difficult (PDF) to gather accurate data on cell phone use, the results call in to question already-unreliable information on the brain tumor-cell phone connection.

A cell phone danger that's more likely than brain tumors is an accident as a result of texting while driving. Any kind of distraction while driving can lead to a loss of concentration on the road and should be avoided when possible. Still, it seems that cell phones don't pose quite the risk of car crashes that we've thought in the past. One study reviewed the techniques used by researchers to explore the cell phone-car crash connection and found methodological problems that could have led to an exaggeration of the link. When reassessing these earlier data, the new study found no significant rise in crash risk in the window of time when people were using their cell phones.

And the risqué teen behavior du jour, sexting, may also be less pervasive than previously thought. While some studies have suggested that the act of sending and receiving nude or otherwise suggestive photos or texts is becoming ubiquitous in teens, a new one has suggested just the opposite. Only about 2.5 percent of teens in one study (PDF) created or appeared in nude or semi-nude texts, and this was reduced to just over one percent when considering only images that actually showed breasts, genitals, or buttocks. The authors point out the fact that society can be "easily alarmed about changing youth mores, a tendency we have referred to elsewhere as 'juvenoia.'" They add that sexting is "far from being a normative behavior for youth," and it may be that what sexting actually does is to make teen sexual behavior or risk taking more visible us, as opposed to increasing its prevalence.

So if cell phones are not responsible for the number of brain tumors, car accidents, and acts of teen deviance we once thought, can they no longer serve as the objects we love to hate? The answer, of course, is that they can, because they are still as annoying and distracting as ever.

Researchers have just reported that talking on cell phones while walking can lead to deficits in cognition, including working memory and executive function. When talking while walking, participants in the study had more trouble navigating to a physical goal than their cell-less counterparts. Texting while walking was even worse. The authors write that while text-walking, people moved more slowly, and had "61 percent increase in lateral deviation ... and 13 percent increase in linear distance traveled." In other words, cell phone use made people navigationally inept. This is, perhaps, not a surprising finding, but the authors do suggest that the combination of deficits due to cell phone use while walking may ultimately work to "compromise safety."

And lest we forget the ultimate manifestation of cell phone annoyingness, earlier this month an audience member's protracted ring stopped the New York Philharmonic in the middle of Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Conductor Alan Gilbert told the audience "We'll wait," to allow the perpetrator to silence the offending device.

Although the risks may not be as great as once imagined, cell phones could theoretically pose dangers both physical and psychological -- in the radiation they put off and the distractions they cause. Methodological issues abound, since most studies must gather data retrospectively. The World Health Organization (WHO) still lists cell phones as "possibly carcinogenic to humans," and more research will be needed before it changes that ruling.

While we wait for definitive study results to come in, it's probably best to use cell phones sparingly and responsibly. Whether or not you're worried about the physical dangers, it may still be wise to give the cell a rest, if for no other reason than to get to your destination on time -- or to avoid stopping a musical ensemble in its tracks.

Image: Ladyann/Shutterstock.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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