Electromagnetic fields from smartphone use at night worsen sleep for children

BARCELONA, Spain — Children could lose sleep if they go on their phones too much before bed, a new study suggests. Researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health add, however, that they did not find a link between exposure to electromagnetic fields during the day and kids getting less sleep at night.

Study authors say phone use is one reason many children do not get enough rest, even though it is vital for their growth and development. They note the link between phone use and sleep deprivation could come down to mental stress, blue light exposure, and radiofrequency electromagnetic fields coming from digital devices.

In a surprising twist though, the researchers found that excessive phone use during the daytime does not make it harder for children to sleep at night. The experts examined the online habits of 1,500 nine to 12-year-olds in Spain and the Netherlands during this study.

They estimated how much exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields — which come from phones, laptops, tablets, TV, radio waves, and WiFi hotspots — children encounter each day. They also gathered information on their phone use through a questionnaire.

The team then collected information on how often a group of 300 children used their phones after 7 p.m., while measuring their sleep for a week using a wrist accelerometer and sleep diaries.

Even talking briefly on a smartphone at night can be harmful for children

Results show the children spent 50 minutes a day glued to their phone screens and two-and-a-half minutes a day making phone calls. The children slept for an average of seven-and-a-half hours a night. However, one in five children made phone calls in the evening and slept for 12 fewer minutes than their peers.

Although the results show a possible connection to nighttime phone use, there was no link between phone use during the day and sleep deprivation. This study is the first of its kind to look at whether exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields in the day as opposed to the evening has any impact on sleep.

“Sleep is crucial for the health and development of adolescents. Inadequate sleep duration or quality is known to lead to adverse physical and mental health consequences,” Professor Monica Guxens from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health writes in the journal Environmental Research.

“Despite its importance to health, insufficient sleep duration and resultant daytime sleepiness are prevalent among adolescents. Several biological, social, and environmental factors play a role in determining sleep patterns and have been related to insufficient sleep duration,” the researcher continues. “The use of mobile communication devices such as mobile phones and tablets has been described as a potential factor impairing adolescents’ sleep.”

Despite these findings, study authors note there are very few studies examining the potential effect of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields on sleep.

“We cannot exclude that this effect is due to other factors related to the phone call and not to exposure to RF-EMF,” says Alba Cabré-Riera, first author of the study, in a media release. “But our results suggest that doses of RF-EMF absorbed by the brain at night might be more relevant to adolescent sleep.”

South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright contributed to this report.