5 Tech Myths Debunked: Cell Phones Don’t Cause Cancer & More

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tech mythsMyths are more common than most people will admit. They perpetuate because they sound like they could be true – and nobody has time to fact-check every last detail. Eventually, as the myths are repeated time and time again, they sound more factual than the truth.

Technology is as susceptible to myths as any other niche. The complexity of the subject, combined with the rapid introduction of new, unfamiliar innovations, creates a perfect breeding ground for misunderstanding. Let’s set these tech myths straight.

RAM Usage Is Bad

tech myths

MakeUseOf will occasionally receive a question from a reader that asks about how to reduce RAM usage on a computer, tablet or smartphone. Their alarm is understandable. A user browsing the web in Windows 7 might open their task manager to find over six gigabytes of RAM used. “Ack!” they think, “no wonder my computer is so slow!”

In truth, this relationship should be flipped on its head. RAM is very, very quick. Mechanical hard drives and some forms of flash storage (like most SD cards) are slow. By storing data that might be needed in RAM, a computer can increase the load speed of frequently accessed software. If RAM is not full of data, it’s effectively doing nothing, so why have it sit empty?

Smartphone users shouldn’t worry for the same reason. Background apps can negatively impact performance on an Android phone, but this usually isn’t because of memory. Instead, the culprit is usually an app that’s running in the background. Clearing memory appears to improve performance only because the offending app is closed to free up space.

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Improperly Unmounting A USB Drive Will Delete Data

tech myths busted

Windows has long sounded the alarm about improperly unmounting disk drives. To this day, you may still receive warning messages when you remove a drive that you haven’t properly disabled through the operating system. Given the alarm, you’d think that the consequences of disobeying would be disastrous.

Not true. USB drives can be freely removed from a computer without issue in most situations. I can attest to this personally. As part of my work, I often have to move flash drives from one PC to the next, and I’ve never lost data from a drive because of it.

So why the warning? Microsoft is playing it safe. Data corruption can occur, but only if a USB drive is actively in use at the moment it is unplugged. Most users don’t do this. Still, Microsoft doesn’t want to be on the hook for the 1-in-1000th  time it does occur. And that’s why the alarm is raised even when there’s no fire.

You Don’t Need An Antivirus If You’re Careful

tech myths busted

Whenever I write an antivirus article I inevitably receive a reply from some smart-alec who claims that you don’t need an antivirus if you’re careful. Viruses come from infected files, right? So just don’t download them! You’ll be fine.

Well, actually, that tech myths couldn’t be more wrong. A decade and a half ago, most viruses were distributed through infected files, but they’ve become far more sophisticated since then. Worms, a specific class of virus, can infect any vulnerable computer through networking exploits. Other viruses spread using browser vulnerabilities. And still more are designed to spread via USB drives or local networks.

Clever users might respond by claiming people don’t have to worry if their software is up to date. This too is no guarantee. Zero-day exploits are common and even a patched system is a sitting duck. An antivirus may be able to stop such an attack (even though it’s unknown) by using heuristic detection to raise the alarm when a file behaves suspiciously. Those without antivirus, however, have no defense.

Cell Phones Cause Cancer

tech myths busted

Many consumer technologies rely on energy and therefor emit or use some form of radiation. Even radio waves are a form of radiation, and since cell phones use them, there’s been concern that having a source of radiation close to our heads could cause cancer. This has been backed up by an alarming report from the World Health Organization which labeled cell phones a “Class B Carcinogen”.

You’d expect that to be based on some fairly hefty evidence, right? Actually, the WHO report is less damning than it sounds in headlines. Class B simply means that a study has indicated that there might be a link, but the link is too weak to be definitive. Meanwhile, numerous other studies have found no link. This includes a massive Danish study involving 350,000 people that was released in late 2011.

Further evidence against the risk of cancer can be found in what we know of physics. Radiation comes in multiple forms, and humans only need to worry about radiation energetic enough to damage DNA. Ultraviolet rays from the sun, which can cause skin cancer, are over 400,000 times more energetic than those emitted from cell phones. Low energy waves like radio can’t hurt DNA, and that means they can’t cause cancer.

Everything Electronic Causes Cancer

tech myths

This means that what holds true for cell phones should hold true for other wireless devices, as well. The rise of wireless networks has caused distress about what all those waves bouncing through the atmosphere might do to our cells. The answer is simple – nothing.  Sleeping on a bed made of wireless routers would be uncomfortable, but it’s not going cause cancer.

Some users become concerned because of another alarming effect. Heat. As electronics are used, they put out heat, and that heat is absorbed by our bodies. That’s why your thighs are warm after using a laptop.

Computers can be harmful if they’re too hot, but the problem isn’t limited to electronics. Dermatologists have long known that constant exposure to heat can cause scaly, discolored skin which is often permanent. A hot computer can cause this – as can a heating blanket, seat warmer, fireplace or oven.

While skin discoloration and minor burns can be a problem to a handful of people, there’s no evidence that normal, intermediate use of a computer will cause cancer. The lesson from dermatology is simple. If something is hot, don’t hang around it too long.


This is merely a handful of tech myths. There are plenty more out there, ranging from the believable to the utterly outrageous. Have you heard a tech myth that you later found out wasn’t true? Tell us about it in the comments.

Image Credits: Laura Billings, Unknown, Arthur, Ed Yourdon

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Comments (72)
  • Bernd Wechner

    On the whole a nice piece, but a little excessive in the hype hype or is that anti-hype hype or whatever?

    1) Cell phones indeed, the jury is out. I don’t see a lot of hysteria around me, quite he opposite, complacency, in me too. But hey, we haven’t seen a generation of use yet, and while there is totally no cause for alarm, it is also a little early to be saying “caution is follow” If someone chooses to lead a cell phone free life or to use one only with a headset go for it. We really can’t say now, that they won’t in another 50 years be like the surviving non smoker pointing at the smokers all dead of lung cancer. We’re not good at testing long term effects reliably in the short term, there’s a real difficulty with that, but we can project from observed short term phenomena and estimate and hope. And the jury is out, but the signs are fine too …

    2) “You Don’t Need An Antivirus If You’re Careful” – technically, I agree. Not because I think you need an antivirus, indeed I don’t, but because I concur that care is not enough. That said two things I think you overlook in your anti-hype hype, are:

    a) Care may not be enough but it sure goes a long way. That is, I only have to look at a naive user today (and I know such) who downloads freeware willy nilly and installs everything casually and I know they are loaded with spy ware, trojans and more in short order, and someone who doesn’t anti-virus or not isn’t.

    b) The Virus Anitvirus game is a cat and mouse game one trying to stay ahead of the other, and antivirus software comes at a cost, out of pocket if you want the best and in system resources, the more security you want the more the cost while herd immunity is very real and helps cull transmission – for which reason you expect an industry promoting vaccination but unlike medical vaccines (which I do take and give my kids as I have both a sense of social responsibility) the cost of being wrong is is losing some of my personal data not death. So I’ll run the gauntlet and keep clear of the game.

    Yes occasionally it meant I had to find and remove a rootkit or some spyware but removal is generally a real option too. In short I simply think it’s over hyped, both ways, by all means use one if you like, but indeed care and herd immunity will reduce your problem rate to manageable levels akin to those that people with antivirus experience (because they’ve been hit by the latest thing that the antivirus community hasn’t nailed yet).

  • themainliner

    Matt, you really must have a chat with a fellow contributor (MUOtechGuy) who has claimed on several occassions that “You Don’t Need An Antivirus If You’re Careful”. I don’t mind different points of view, but I agree with you he is simply wrong.

  • J.P Dimmers

    This article is not up to your normal standard…. Specifically, If you detach a thumb drive from a USB port. You had a file open which was not saved…. By ejecting the drive you will be prompted that the file is in use and con not be ejected. Removing the thumb drive will cause the file to become corrupt, or at least your latest work will not be saved. Furthermore, on HP Z 400 / 800 removing some thumb drive can actually cause the USB controller to crash.

  • Stephanie Staker

    Excellent – I am sharing this far and wide! I am getting so jaded now that when I see any email that says “share this with everyone you know” that I KNOW that it is not true. Thanks for the info. I know this was posted a few days ago but I am now catching up. :)

  • sumith

    nice article specially about safe remove of USB drives it’s correct i can vouch for it…

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