This is your brain on a phone

Children play video games on smartphones while attending a public event on September 22, 2012 in Ruesselsheim, Germany.

There is word that Britain's National Health Service has just commissioned a big study to see what mobile phones are doing — if anything — to our kids.

This is one of the biggest stories I'v seen so far while broadcasting this week from London, and yet it has received very little coverage outside of these isles.

Here is the part that stopped me in my tracks: Researchers say this is not something that has been studied much. It should be said that perhaps there are no significant health, cognitive or developmental effects of young people using cell phones the way they do. But until this new research starts bearing fruit in a few years these will remain open questions.

The study will recruit parents and children at about 160 middle and high schools around London. They have to agree to let a special app monitor the phones of children as young as 11. The app will track how the phone is used, as a speaker phone, via headphones or how often it's held up against the ear.

Researchers, coordinated by the Imperial College London, are interested in any effects of radio waves emitted by the phones but also how the regular use of mobiles might change the way kids think or remember information. It's not just the effects of phones they are interested in, but other digital devices such as tablets as well. Alarmist nonsense? It is being noted here that the World Health Organization has said there is an urgent need for this kind of research with youngsters.

It is interesting that for a while now the National Health Service over here has had guidelines urging that phones should only be used by kids for "essential purposes." If you have ever seen a kid stuck in that praying mantis pose with a phone in hand, you know that is not always the case. That is to say kids have been known to use smart phones for more than just calling home for a ride or checking if the teacher had sent an email.

The lead investigator in the new British study is quoted by the BBC saying, "As mobile phones are a new and widespread technology central to our lives, carrying out the 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."

What I am wondering is where they are going to find kids for the study's control group: the kids who never use phones are becoming a very rare breed.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...