When the subject is cell phones and teens, there’s plenty to worry about. Spending endless hours on social media can contribute to low self-esteem and negative moods. Plus, there’s emerging evidence that all that radiation is a possible carcinogen.

Now there’s a new worry: Living with a cell phone glued to the ear may change the way a teen’s brain functions—and impair a certain kind of memory.

Background: Earlier studies have looked at the possible effects of radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) on memory and other cognitive tasks, but those experiments involved short-term exposure, such as one 50-minute call. Most teens who have phones use them a lot—many hours each day—so longer-term research was needed.

Study: Researchers from Switzerland recruited a group of teenagers to participate. The participants completed a questionnaire and a memory test at the beginning of the experiment and again one year later. Verbal memory (the ability to remember and recall words) and figural memory (the ability to recognize shapes or figures, such as animals, and remember them) were tested. Some of the teens also carried a device that measured exposure to RF-EMF and, for part of the time, kept a diary of activities. The researchers also obtained records from the teens’ cell-phone companies to determine minutes spent talking on the phone. Time spent texting or gaming was considered as a negative exposure control, as there is negligible RF-EMF exposure during those tasks.

Results: Verbal memory was not affected, but figural memory was. The more time teens spent talking on their phones, the worse their figural memory became. Figural memory was tested by showing sets of paired symbols to the teens and then later showing them one of the symbols and asking them to recall the other part of the pair. In real life, this visual cognitive ability relates to the ability to, say, recognize faces—or understand geometry. Teens who talked a lot on their cell phones were losing this ability.

Why the different effects? The answer might be quite simple—the researchers note that figural memory is processed in the right side of the brain, and most teens in the study were right-handed and held the phone to their right ears.

Important: The level of RF-EMF exposure varied by the time spent on the phone but also by the kind of technology phones used. Phones using Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) emitted hundreds of times more radiation than those using a newer technology, Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). UMTS isn’t used in the US, but GSM is—and it emits much more radiation than another standard US technology, Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). In the US, AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, while Sprint, Verizon and US Cellular use CDMA.

Bottom line: You may want to choose a phone that emits less radiation—that uses CDMA, for example. Just as important is how a teenager—or anyone, for that matter—uses a cell phone. Anything that puts distance between the phone and the brain will dramatically reduce RF-EMF exposure, so encourage your teen to use headphones or speakerphone mode—or to text, which is safer. Do these things yourself, too—the researchers are now planning a similar study in adults, but the same tips on minimizing cell-phone radiation works for everyone.

For many more ways to minimize cell-phone risk—at any age—see Bottom Line’s article “Can Your Cell Phone Cause Cancer?

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