Mobile phone use and cognitive development during adolescence

New study will investigate whether mobile phones and wireless technologies affect cognitive development

A new study by scientists at Imperial College London and Birkbeck is launching today and will investigate whether the use of mobile phones and other wireless technologies might affect children’s cognitive development.

The Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones (SCAMP) is the largest study in the world to address this issue. It will focus on cognitive functions such as memory and attention, which continue to develop into adolescence.

Seventy percent of 11-12 year olds in the UK now own a mobile phone, rising to 90 per cent by age 14. While there is no convincing evidence that radio wave exposures from mobile phones affect health, scientists remain uncertain as to whether children’s developing brains are more vulnerable than adults’ brains, due to their developing nervous system, enhanced absorption of energy in head tissue, and increased cumulative exposure over their lifetime.

SCAMP is an independent, three-year study commissioned by the Department of Health. It will follow the cognitive development of approximately 2500 year 7 (aged 11-12 years) pupils in participating schools from this September. 11-12 years is the age at which the majority of children start to own a mobile phone.

Current UK health policy guidelines advise that children under 16 should be encouraged to use mobile phones for essential purposes only, where possible use a hands-free kit or text  and, if calls are really necessary, to keep them short.

Dr Mireille Toledano, Principal Investigator, Imperial College London, explains: “This advice to parents is based on the precautionary principle, given in the absence of available evidence and not because we have evidence of any harmful effects. As mobile phones are a new and widespread technology central to our lives, carrying out the SCAMP 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.

“By assessing the children in year 7 and again in year 9 we will be able to see how their cognitive abilities develop in relation to changing use of mobile phones and other wireless technologies” added Dr Toledano.

Dr Iroise Dumontheil, a co-Investigator at Birkbeck, explains: “Recent research shows that parts of the brain and the cognitive functions they support continue to develop during adolescence. Cognitive functions are essentially the basis for how we think, how we process and remember information, and how we make decisions. As such, they account for children’s behaviour and educational achievement. It is therefore of critical importance to investigate whether the use of mobile phone and other wireless technologies may impact cognitive development, and this is what SCAMP will do.”

Parents and pupils who agree to take part in the study will answer questions about the children's use of mobile devices and wireless technologies, well-being and lifestyle in year 7 and year 9. Pupils will also undertake classroom-based computerised tasks measuring various cognitive abilities that underpin functions such as memory and attention.

Encouraging schools to participate in SCAMP, Dr Iroise Dumontheil said: “Children involved in SCAMP will have the opportunity to take part in a science project first-hand. By participating, schools and their pupils will contribute to the strength of scientific research in the UK and enable us to provide new evidence to inform policy, and the health of current and future generations.”

Anyone who wants to find out more, or nominate their school to take part in SCAMP, can contact Dr Dumontheil.