Effects of Mobile Phones on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health: A Commentary

Effects of Mobile Phones on Children’s and Adolescents’ Health: A Commentary

Author: Lennart Hardell

In: Special Section of Child Development. Contemporary Mobile Technology and Child and Adolescent Development, edited by Zheng Yan and Lennart Hardell, May 15, 2017.


The use of digital technology has grown rapidly during the last couple of decades. During use, mobile phones and cordless phones emit radiofrequency (RF) radiation. No previous generation has been exposed during childhood and adolescence to this kind of radiation. The brain is the main target organ for RF emissions from the handheld wireless phone. An evaluation of the scientific evidence on the brain tumor risk was made in May 2011 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer at World Health Organization. The scientific panel reached the conclusion that RF radiation from devices that emit nonionizing RF radiation in the frequency range 30 kHz–300 GHz is a Group 2B, that is, a “possible” human carcinogen. With respect to health implications of digital (wireless) technologies, it is of importance that neurological diseases, physiological addiction, cognition, sleep, and behavioral problems are considered in addition to cancer. Well-being needs to be carefully evaluated as an effect of changed behavior in children and adolescents through their interactions with modern digital technologies.


In spite of the IARC evaluation little has happened to reduce exposure to RF fields in most countries. The exposure guideline used by many agencies was established in 1998 by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and was based on thermal (heating) effects from RF radiation neglecting non-thermal biological effects. It was updated in 2009 and still gives the guideline 2 to 10 W/m2 for RF radiation depending on frequency.

In contrast to ICNIRP the BioInitiative Report from 2007, updated in 2012, based the evaluation also on non-thermal health effects from RF radiation. The scientific benchmark for possible health risks was defined to be 30 to 60 µW/m2.  Thus, using the significantly higher guideline by ICNIRP gives a ‘green card’ to roll out the digital technology thereby not considering non-thermal health effects from RF radiation. Numerous health hazards are disregarded such as cancer, neurological diseases, psychological addiction, cognition, sleep and behavioral problems.

For obvious reasons the extent and severity of long-term health effects among children and adolescents using this technology are not know. However, there are already numerous peer-reviewed studies showing health hazards from wireless devices. Urgent action using the precautionary principle is needed.

Children’s use of mobile phones – An international comparison 2012

Published in 2013 by the GSM Association and the Mobile Society Research Institute within NTT DOCOMO Inc, Japan

A summary of this publication provided by the mobile phone industry is given below.

Chapter 3
Children and mobile phones – an overview
• 65% of all children surveyed currently use a mobile
phone; of those, 81% have a new handset.
• 12 is the most common age for children to get their first
mobile phone.
• 27% of child mobile phone owners have a smartphone.
Children’s smartphone ownership in India and Indonesia
is double that of their parents.
• Children whose parents own smartphones or featurephones
are more likely to have one also.
• Tablet use is relatively low with only 18% penetration in
Egypt and Chile, 7% in Indonesia and between 5–7% in
Japan and India.

Chapter 4
Children’s use of mobile phones
• Initially, children use their mobile phone predominantly
for calling; however, as they get older, messaging
becomes the preferred choice of communication.
• Nearly 24% and 20% of children in Indonesia and India
respectively, send over 51 messages a day.
• 54% of all child mobile phone users access the mobile
internet; this increases to over 87% when looking
exclusively at smartphone users.
• 70% of all children who use the internet through their
phone access it at least once a day.
• 11% of child mobile phone users surveyed list their
handset as their primary device for accessing
the internet; this increases to almost 32% among
smartphone users.
• Cameras are the most used pre-installed function on
mobiles (75%) followed by music players (60%) and
movie players (50%).

Chapter 5
Apps, social networking and other services
• Of those children who access the internet via their
mobile phone, 57% download or use apps; this is highest
in Chile (78%) and lowest in Egypt (44%).
• Across all countries, entertainment apps are the most
popular among children.
• Entertainment is the only category of apps that children
use more than their parents across all countries.
• Information apps have the greatest increase in use as
children get older, starting at 18% use for 8-year-olds
and rising to 36% at age 18. Although entertainment
apps are the most popular, they are the only app
category to decline from 90% use at age 10 to 77%
at age 18.
• 49% of children who access the internet via a mobile
phone use it for social networking. 45% of these have
have their profiles set to public; this is as high as 55%
among 13-year olds.
• 70% of children have met or started to communicate
with ‘new friends’ online.

Chapter 6
Parental concerns and digital literacy
• Over 70% of parents have concerns about children’s
mobile phone use, with viewing inappropriate sites and
overuse sharing the highest percentage at around 82%.
• Parents whose children use social networking sites are
no more concerned about privacy than those whose
children don’t.
• 65% of all parents surveyed set rules on their children’s
mobile phone use, but there was no common response
to rule-breaking across all countries.
• Over 54% of parents who have access to parental
control solutions use them; content filters are the most
popular control method at 57%.
• Almost 67% of parents believe that an adult in the family
should educate their children about mobile phone use;
this is a consistent preference across all countries.


Belgium to restrict use of mobile phones among children

More information is given below:


Children’s mobile phones may no longer be sold. Besides this, the specific absorption rate (SAR) has to be listed for every mobile phone at the point of sale.

New regulation for the sale of mobile phones as of 2014

As of 1 March 2014, new regulations will apply to the sale of mobile phones. On the one hand the sale of mobile phones that have been specially manufactured for young children (under 7s) will be prohibited. On the other hand the SAR value will have to be listed everywhere where mobile phones are sold: in stores as well as for distance sales over the Internet.

Sale of children’s mobile phones prohibited

As of 1 March 2014, mobile phones that are specially designed for young children may no longer be introduced to the Belgian market. This concerns customised mobile telephones suitable for children younger than 7 years of age, for instance having few buttons and a shape attractive for children. Additionally, from this date forward, no advertising may be made for mobile phone use among the same age group.
The specific absorption rate (SAR) to become mandatory consumer information
When you purchase a new mobile phone, from now on you will be able to choose your new device based on the specific absorption rate (SAR). The SAR value is different for every mobile phone. The SAR value will have to be indicated along with the other technical specifications, not only in the shop, but also for distance sales over the Internet.

Why these measures?

As a precaution. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC, 2011) there may be an increased risk of brain cancer due to the intensive use of a mobile phone. The IARC has therefore classified radio frequency as “possibly carcinogenic”. Measures are being taken pending clearer scientific conclusions. The intention is to raise awareness among mobile phone users.

You can reduce your average exposure by choosing a mobile phone with a lower SAR value. But it is not the intention to use it for hours at a time: the way in which you use your mobile phone also determines your exposure. Using an earpiece, text messaging and not phoning in places with poor reception are a few tips that can significantly reduce your exposure. You can find more tips on our page “sensible mobile phone use ”.

Children already come into contact with mobile phones from a very young age. The overall exposure during their lifetime will thus be greater than that of today’s adults. Moreover, children absorb more mobile phone radiation than adults (twice as much in the brain and 10 times more for skull bone marrow). This is already a reason for additional caution, given the classification of radio frequency as “possible carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Want to know more?

Then check out our list of frequently asked questions.
You can find more information about sensible mobile phone use and the IARC’s classification on this page.
You can download the Royal Decree on the ban of mobile phones for children here.
The Royal Decree which makes the mention of the SAR value mandatory for mobile phone sales and which prohibits advertising for children can be downloaded here.



Note that the classification Group 2B of exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields holds for the whole radiofrequency frequency and not only mobile phones. Thus it included base-station antennas, Wi-Fi, smartmeters etc., see below:

Robert Baan, PhD, is the principal author of the 2011 IARC Monograph on the carcinogenicity of radiofrequency radiation. He provided this interpretation of the May 31, 2011 classification by IARC of RFR as a Possible Human Carcinogen (a 2B classification). Baan says that the IARC RFR classification as a Possible Human Carcinogen applies to all types of RFR exposures including smart meters.

“So the classification 2B, possibly carcinogenic, holds for all types of radiation within the radiofrequency part of the electromagnetic spectrum, including the radiation emitted by base-station antennas, radio/TV towers, radar, Wi-Fi, smart meters, etc.”