With most of the nation’s schools closed through summer due to the coronavirus pandemic, children are spending more time looking at digital screens than ever before. Wireless technology is vital for distance learning. But staying constantly connected has consequences, especially for children’s health and wellbeing.
Since COVID-19 forced schools to close and eliminated most recreational group activities, children are at home a lot more than usual––and their device use is surging. From school assignments to social media to watching television and playing video games, youth are engaging with the digital world on an unprecedented level.
Cell phones, laptops, and tablets are helping students and educators to stay connected. But excessive device use puts children at risk for a range of physical, behavioral, and emotional health challenges.
One consequence of too much screen time is greater exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). EMFs come in many forms, including the radiofrequency (RF) radiation emitted by cell phones, WiFi devices, and broadcast television.
Findings from human studies are mixed, but there is research showing a potential link between RF radiation and several types of cancer. A 2018 National Institutes of Health (NIH) animal study found that in rats, high exposure to RF radiation was associated with strong evidence of tumors in the rodents’ hearts, brains, and adrenal glands.
Children’s growing bodies are uniquely sensitive to EMFs. “As a result of rapid growth rates and the greater vulnerability of developing nervous systems, the long-term risks to children from [RF radiation] exposure from cell phones and other [wireless transmitting devices] are expected to be greater than those to adults,” Miller et al. wrote in a 2019 paper in Frontiers in Public Health.
“Compared with an adult male, a cell phone held against the head of a child exposes deeper brain structures to greater radiation doses per unit volume, and the young, thin skull’s bone marrow absorbs a roughly 10-fold higher local dose,” they explain (Miller, A et al. Front Pub Health. 2019; 7: 223).
Some studies suggest a possible correlation between EMF exposure and increased risk of pediatric cancers like childhood leukemia. However, human research is currently limited––and as many of the technologies we now use daily are still relatively new, their long-term health impacts on children won’t be fully understood for many years to come.
“They’re not toys,” stresses Jennifer Lowry, MD of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). She urges parents to be mindful of that. “They have radiation that is emitted from them and the more we can keep it off the body and use (the phone) in other ways, it will be safer,” she said in a statement.
Treating phones like playthings also holds a risk of addiction. The notion that technology is addictive is not metaphorical. “Devices are like a stimulant. They are dopaminergic,” says Camilla Rees, a health educator and environmental consultant, and senior policy advisor for the National Institute for Science, Law, and Public Policy.
Citing the work of addiction psychologist, Nicholas Kardaras, author of Glow Kids, Rees says that the incessant glow of smart phone and computer screens can be as dopamine-activating to young brains as sex.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, cell phone use was already exploding among young people. Some parents have expressed concern that their children will become addicted to social media platforms, games, or other on-screen activities as a result of the pandemic.
Being perpetually online can also negatively impact kids’ cognition, affecting essential processes like attention and memory. Heavy device use can lead to distractability, hyperactivity, difficulty focusing on lengthy or complex tasks, and a heightened sense of anxiety. Excessive screen time also triggers other health issues including disrupted sleep, insomnia, eye strain, and headaches.
Though social media, online conferencing, and gaming do keep kids connected, they can also perpetuate social isolation and loneliness.
In the current conditions of quarantine, many families see no alternative to extended device use. In many places, there are few social, educational, or cultural options beyond the online world.
Mindful Device Use
“Problems begin when media use displaces physical activity, hands-on exploration, and face-to-face social interaction in the real world, which is critical to learning,” the AAP cautions.
Especially now, children need help from adults to understand how to engage mindfully with their cell phones and other similar technologies. It is crucial that parents support their children in setting healthy boundaries around device use, which also reduces their exposure to RF radiation.
Rather than spending entire days online, screen time must be balanced with healthy activities like physical movement or outdoor trips into the natural world. Exercise, art, crafts, journaling, reading, music, board games, and puzzles encourage learning while promoting cognitive and emotional health.
When children do need to plug in, it’s advisable that they keep phones and other wireless transmitting devices away from their heads by setting them on a table and using headphones or speakers. This helps to minimize radiation risk. Many child health professionals also recommend turning off all screens and putting devices away well before bedtime for optimal sleep.
There’s also an array of technologies designed to shield the body from exposure to radiation, including fabrics, paints, bed canopies, paints, bed canopies, and EMF harmonizing devices. EMF Harmony offers a variety of radiation protection devices to help minimize health risks when using cell phones, laptops, smart watches, and other wireless devices.