It’s hard to imagine a time before smartphones. But the first iPhone was only released in 2007. In the ensuing decade, our smartphones have become integral to our lives. They are one of the first things we reach for in the morning, and the last thing we put down before bed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has stated that 1-in-3 adults aren’t getting enough sleep. According to a 2015 report from Bank of America, 71 percent of respondents sleep with or next to their mobile phones. Younger millennials were found to be the most likely to sleep with their phones on the bed, while 23 percent of respondents had fallen asleep with their phone in their hand.
With the prevalence of phones in the bedrooms, it’s natural to question whether they are part of the problem. While its almost common knowledge that the blue light emitted from our devices doesn’t exactly help, there may be another factor: electromagnetic radiation.
What Is Electromagnetic Radiation?
To many people, mentioning the word “radiation” conjures up images of Homer Simpson at the Nuclear Plant or fish with multiple heads. However, radiation is actually just energy travelling through space. Electromagnetic radiation is the energy carried by waves (or photons, but we won’t go there…) in the electromagnetic spectrum.
It ranges from low-frequency radio and microwaves to high-frequency X-rays and gamma rays. Low-frequency electromagnetic waves are referred to as non-ionizing and are not thought to impact our bodies as they pass through. High-frequency electromagnetic radiation is termed ionizing radiation, as it carries enough energy to interact with our cells.
Mobile phones and other wireless products use low-energy radio waves to send and receive information. While radio waves are non-ionizing there has been a suggestion that as we keep our phones in very close proximity to our bodies, we may be more susceptible to the ill-effects of radiation.
What Are the Health Concerns?
With our world becoming ever more complex, it can often be difficult to tease out the root causes of health problems. Electromagnetic radiation is particularly difficult to study as it is almost impossible to isolate other environmental factors. The effects of the radiation can also vary between individuals depending on the length of exposure, and the radiation’s frequency and power. However, there are some medical conditions and health complaints that have suggested links to electromagnetic radiation.
When you flip the switch to turn on Airplane Mode, your device shuts off all radio frequency transmissions. As the name suggests, this was primarily created for use on flights to prevent interference with control equipment. If there is a possibility that electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones could be interfering with your sleep, then would activating Airplane Mode help?
Electromagnetic Radiation and Sleep Disturbances
Sleep is needed for our bodies to repair, and provide a chance for our brains to process memories. Instead of a binary “asleep or awake”, there are actually four stages of sleep: N1, N2, N3, and Rapid Eye Movement (REM). REM is the deepest part of the sleep cycle. When your alarm call leaves you feeling groggy, it is likely because you were in the REM part of your sleep cycle. During lighter, non-REM sleep you are more likely to be woken by noises and other environmental factors. If electromagnetic radiation was to have an effect on your sleep it would probably be during non-REM sleep.
However, there is no current body of evidence that suggests mobile phone radio waves affect our sleep. If there is no direct effect on sleep quality from our phones, then could they be causing other health problems where poor sleep quality is a symptom?
Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS)
If you’ve watched any episodes of the Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, then you will know that Saul Goodman’s older brother Chuck believes that he suffers from Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS). After being forced to leave work due to debilitating symptoms, he spends most of his day isolated in his house, and refuses to allow entry to anyone with a cellphone, or even a wristwatch. In order to prevent electromagnetic radiation in his house, he huddles under foil blankets, and at one stage even turns his house into a Faraday Cage.
Despite being featured in a fictional show, there are people who believe they suffer from the condition. The symptoms range from headaches, fatigue, and sleep disturbances to burning sensations, and severe pains (although symptoms vary between individuals). The sufferers associate their symptoms with electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones, mobile phone base stations, and power lines. To date there has been no definitive scientific evidence to support EHS, and can not be used as an official diagnosis. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) does state on it’s website that “the symptoms are certainly real” but are unlikely to come from exposure to electromagnetic radiation.
Mobile Phones and Cancer
Exposure to ionizing radiation is known to increase the risk of cancer. As ionizing radiation is high energy, it has the ability to interact with our cells and cause mutations. Cellular mutations can cause them to divide in an uncontrolled and abnormal way which can lead to cancerous tumors.
The radio waves used in wireless communication are low-energy and therefore non-ionizing. However, there has been speculation that due to the proliferation of mobile phones — there are an estimated 7.2 billion worldwide — and the close proximity we keep them in could have similar cancer-causing effects to ionizing radiation. Many studies have tackled this but the outcomes have been largely inconclusive.
An inconclusive result is sadly not the same as a negative result. This has led the WHO to categorize electromagnetic radiation generated by mobile phones as possibly carcinogenic. A lack of a definitive answer may make you choose to err on the side of caution and turn on Airplane Mode.
One More Thing
A 2012 study of almost 21,000 U.K. adults found that the average sleep score was only 5.1 out of 10. The factors that people reported affecting their sleep included fairly common physical complaints like body discomfort, noise, and room temperature. The evidence to suggest that radio waves have an affect on the quality of our sleep is at best inconclusive. If people are reporting that they are only getting 50 percent quality sleep, then something else must be affecting our sleep.
The same study also found that persistent thoughts kept people awake like “what happened today, and what I’ve got on tomorrow” and “what the future might hold”. True, these are the kinds of thoughts our brain loves to bombard us with. There is a growing body of work suggesting our relationship with always-on technology and social media may be part of the problem too. To mute the onslaught of notifications it may be worth turning on Airplane Mode before your head hits the pillow.
What Will You Choose?
Looking after your health is one of life’s most important goals. It makes sense to worry about the speculative health concerns about electromagnetic radiation from cell phones. The lack of evidence should give your worrying mind some relief. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. There is always the possibility that scientists will discover links between electromagnetic radiation and quality of sleep in the future. Since there are no negative effects to using Airplane Mode, why not give it a try?
While there may be no clear direct medical benefit to putting your phone in Airplane Mode, protecting your mental health may make it worthwhile. Instead of getting bleary-eyed checking your Instagram feed, use relaxation techniques to calmly power down for the night. You could even try building yourself an evening routine that could improve your sleep.
Do you keep your phone with you when you sleep? Have you tried Airplane Mode while sleeping? What did you find? Do you think it makes a difference? Let us know in the comments below!