Does Cell Phone Radiation Disrupt Your Sleep?

cellphonesA few weeks ago I was experiencing some trouble getting and staying asleep. I was having some stress in my life, and I was pretty sure the stress was keeping me up, worried.

I mentioned this to my regular therapist, who became suddenly animated. “Do you have any screens near your bed?” he asked, leaning forward. “Like a cell phone or something?”

This was not the response I expected. Since he used the word “screens,” I assumed he was talking about the possibility of light, as from a computer monitor. “Just my phone,” I said, “On my nightstand. I use it as an alarm clock. But it’s not lit up or anything.”

“Oh, it doesn’t have to be lit up! Just being on is enough to emit radio waves that keep you awake. You should put it at least six feet from your bed. In another room is even better.”

Oh really?

There have been a LOT of claims made against cell phones and cell phone radiation over the years, most of them either completely baseless or overblown from very weak preliminary data. I’d remembered reading something about the light from digital devices disturbing sleep, but the idea that the radiation somehow interfered with sleep was a new one to me.

It turns out that sleep disturbance is indeed one of the claims made against cell phones. The study that most people point to when it comes to sleep disruption and cell phone radiation is a 2008 study, Lowden, et al,  The study received, not surprisingly, the same kind of media attention that always greets these kinds of “discoveries”: oversimplified, overblown, and uncritical. But the results of the actual study were far less impressive.

The study exposed participants to three hours of controlled, active RF just prior to going to bed. The study found that those exposed spent more time in light Stage 2 sleep and less time in the deeper Stage 3 and Stage 4 parts of sleep. It also found some increase in brain activity during Stage 2 sleep. The study described these changes as “moderate impairment of SWS [slow-wave sleep].”

The first thing to note here is that the study was built around three hours of continuous active exposure prior to sleep. Now, I have been known to talk on the phone at length, but three hours?  If i have my phone in hand before going to bed, it’s probably to check e-mail or play some Angry Birds, not for a three-hour continuous chat with the phone against my head. The second thing to note here is that, while the study found that exposure changed the quality of sleep, it did not seem to affect getting to sleep or staying asleep, which were the problems I was experiencing. Strike one for my therapist’s hypothesis.

It’s also worth noting that, while this one widely cited study found some effect, the results have not been consistent with other studies. Some studies find effects on human brain activity, while other studies do not. So even if there is something to the idea, it’s far from conclusive at this time, and the number of conflicting findings suggest that any effect is minor at best.

These studies also usually rely on prolonged exposure to active RF segnals. For example, Volkow, et al, found that cell phone proximity can increase brain metabolism, though the change is less than the change wrought by opening your eyelids. This was a change brought about by a simulated 50-minute phone call — that is, 50 solid minutes of exposure with an active phone right next to the head.

My phone is not active at night — I don’t sleep-dial — and depending on where I roll as I sleep it’s anywhere from two to five feet away from my head at any given time. So strike two for my therapist’s hypothesis.

Even if the science pertaining to cell phone radiation and sleep does hold up to further study, it’s worth noting that cell phones radiation output is actually regulated and measured already, and that in general it’s going down as technology improves. CNET, which maintains a comparative report on the Specific Absorbtion Rate (SAR) of current phone models, notes that

For a phone to receive FCC certification and be sold in the United States, its maximum SAR level must be 1.6 watts per kilogram. In Europe, the level is capped at 2 watts per kilogram, while Canada allows a maximum of 1.6 watts per kilogram.

My iPhone 4S has a SAR level of 1.11 W/kg, which places it well below the FCC limit (I live in the U.S.) and well below the highest output phone in the current list, the Blackbery Curve 9310, which just inches in below the maximum with 1.58 W/kg. Even allowing for an effect to exist at all, and even allowing for that effect to work at a distance while the phone is in sleep mode, my phone would not be the likeliest candidate for putting off the level of RF that would have much effect. So, strike three for my therapist’s hypothesis.

The most disturbing part of all this, for me, is that this man is supposed to be a professional therapist. Mental distress leading to lack of sleep must be something he encounters every day. Why did he make the leap to my phone? Especially since (1) I have been keeping my phone on the nightstand for years, but my sleep issues were recent; and (2) I could point to actual causes of psychological distress that were keeping me awake. Further, after some of the stressful elements had either been resolved or eliminated, my sleep returned to normal.

Is it time for me to stop using my iPhone as an alarm clock? I’ve seen nothing to convince me to. It may be time to find a new therapist, though. While I was able to recognize that particular bit of pseudoscientific advice, it makes me wonder what other questionable content he’s been delivering during our sessions.

About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
This entry was posted in Pseudoscience and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

36 Responses to Does Cell Phone Radiation Disrupt Your Sleep?

  1. Craig Good says:

    My admittedly anecdotal experience with clinical psychology has oft made me wonder if it’s scientific at all. Research psychology is plausibly, if perhaps not often, science. I just see little evidence that clinicians are trained to think scientifically. NLP? EMDR? Thin gruel if you ask me. So I’m not shocked that your therapist thought that tiny amounts of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation might have an effect beyond the only one predicted by physics: warming your body by an infinitesimally small amount.

    • Ali says:

      I’m not so bothered that my therapist holds unscientific beliefs. What really bothered me was that he would *put forth* such a belief as an explanation for my sleeplessness when *the obvious psychiatric explanation* was staring him in the face, and in fact is the sort of thing that, as a therapist, he should have known *as a part of his profession*. I mean, if a client tells him they’re feeling suicidal, does he recommend ionizing their water or something?

    • Lucas says:

      Well, as a someone who is finishing his psychology bachelor I have to tell you that that is not the case. scientific thinking is hammered on to a great extend. I’m a person who is very critical about claims like these all the time and to be honest I think this specific therapist is the exception on the rule. I know not to overstep my specific field of expertise (although I love physics and astronomy so I know a little bit more about this than the average behavioral scientist.).
      I don’t know how universities shape their education program in different countries but I know that when I finish my education here I’ll be the science-practitioner I get pushed to be.

  2. Pat Berry says:

    In order to call yourself a psychiatrist or psychologist in the U.S., you must undergo years of scientific and medical training and obtain a state license. But there are no requirements for calling yourself a “therapist.” Certainly no scientific training is needed. Some years ago, my daughter was under the care of a therapist who helped her quite a bit, but the therapist was not trained in science or medicine. She was educated as a social worker. So we kept that in mind when evaluating the therapist’s recommendations — and my daughter also had appointments with a psychiatrist, whose role was mainly to prescribe medication for her (antidepressants and mood stabilizers).

    Like I said, we found this therapist helpful. But she wasn’t a scientist. Yours probably isn’t either.

    • Ali says:

      Yes, you’re right. I think this therapist has some sort of social work degree as well (he used to work in a children’s guidance center). But sleep disturbance should be something he sees *all the time* with clients as a part of his profession. I would hope it’s “in his wheelhouse” so to speak when it comes to giving professional, not-woo advice.

  3. Jon Richfield says:

    Alison, your therapist FAIK might be well-informed and competent, though his apparent knowledge of the relevant physics does not reassure me any more than you. Your research research however, has been rather impressive. However, here are a few thoughts.
    1: As I may have said before, and will very likely say again, except in linguistics I deny the canard that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”.
    2: What I have to offer is anecdotal and subject to misinterpretation to boot.
    3: My views on information are rigid and include the concept that information is physical and that it cannot be transmitted except by physical means; in particular, if a signal is emitted that does not adequately interact with a receptor, no signal will be received.
    4: It does not follow that the route, form and content of a signal will conform to the effects expected or intended by the sender or the receiver.
    5: Lots of etcs.
    6: Except for when the activities of my cellphones cause such things as distortions on my computer screen, or noises over my radio etc, I personally cannot detect any effect from my cellphone. (I have not been tested for mental effects by observation of brain activity etc, so I cannot vouch for subconscious effects etc.)
    7: HOWEVER, one of my sons hates using a cellphone, gets headaches etc (Nuuuu? He hates it for psychological reasons, maybe? Any better reason to get a headache? Read on!)
    8: But, he commonly can tell a mystified colleague (painedly) that s/he is about to get a call, much as one sometimes can guess it from disturbances on a CRT screen. Whether the effect is directly from microwaves or what, is anyone’s guess.
    9: Such stimuli might indeed cause sleep disturbances in principle.
    10: This sort of study would be more reliable if it concentrated on folks who claimed to be affected in such ways and showed repeatable results.

    FWIW…

    • Ali says:

      The reason why “the plural of anecdotes is anecdotes, not data” is because the “data” of those anecdotes is not collected under controlled or consistent conditions. For example, if you believe your son has sensitivity to RF, then you might automatically and subconsciously begin noting all the times when a headache or such *could* be explained by this belief, but not noting all the times when it *couldn’t*. It’s the old selective memory problem.

      I haven’t done the research on controlled studies of RF sensitivity. But I will note that the Lowden, et al, study *did* consider self-reported RF sensitivity as a data point and found no correlation between self-perceived sensitivity and the actual results of the study, i.e. “RF sensitive” participants were no more likely to have disrupted sleep after exposure or to sleep better in the absence of RF. .

      • Jon Richfield says:

        Ali, I am well aware of the hazards of treating anecdotes as seriously as controlled experimental data. However, the world we experience offers us far more uncontrolled than controlled data and demands far more premature hypotheses to deal with it. Controls are a luxury that we seldom can afford, and timely results even more seldom. The only context in which a controlled body of data not only is the gold standard, but is completely a prerequisite, is in compelling acceptance by reasoned sceptics. (Hypotheco-deductive science, right? And even then scope for alternative interpretations may take a long time to eliminate.)

        But the overwhelming majority of controlled empirical scientific studies (and breakthroughs) begin with the proverbial “That’s funny…” which usually is not based controlled observations in turn. As Pasteur said: “Chance favours the prepared mind.” (Sorry I can’t give it in the original French; on ne parlais pas or something…) And the prepared mind must be prepared for more than controlled observations. ;-(

        • Ali says:

          That is the best value of anecdote: it’s an initial inkling, the encounter, suspicion, or noticing of something that may be worthy of further, more controlled study. But they are not, by themselves, reliable evidence.

          • Jon Richfield says:

            Quite correct, this is true both for anecdotes (which often supply an inkling for something that is quite separate from, or even opposite to, what the source had in mind) and for one’s own fleeting observations and speculations. It is important to to be alert, both for the merits of the inklings and for the hazards of red herrings.

      • Moral Dolphin says:

        Has anyone tried datum?

  4. innominata says:

    My experiences with psychologists, is that they all got into the field to understand their own mental quirks. This might have no impact on the quality of care, but watch for agenda’s.

  5. Jeff Grigg says:

    I find the light emitted from my cell phone most annoying, even when it switches to its minimal “screen saver” mode that shows only the current time. I can see everything in the room by that light. :-[ And there are two other sources of light in the room. I’m not a fan of night lights. But I have “eye pillows.” So the light problem is easily solvable.

    As for radio waves…
    You may as well be concerned that AM and FM radio waves and television waves are bombarding you constantly. (…and driving you insane, if you’re inclined to think they do. 😉 ) Fact is that cell phones emit a lot less when you are not actively talking on them. And they are dramatically closer to your head when you’re doing that.

    You might need a new therapist. One who is a bit more rational.

    • Jon Richfield says:

      Hi Jeff,
      Personally I am about as worried about RF-IR noise as you are, and about as sensitive, I should guess. But I have a few niggles with your points. Less? More? Within reasonable limits it would be peak amplitudes that would be likelier to have an effect on subjects than sustained amplitudes, just as the noise of a car accident might well wake one from a deep sleep when routine traffic noise would not. And your phone does shout as loudly as possible when reception is poor, even if it only does so at intervals when reporting back to the network when inactive. I keep getting into trouble with my wife when I forget to power down my phone and it wakes up at midnight and shouts at our dormant radio, loudly enough to wake both of us (and I get the impression louder than an ordinary conversation.)
      But that does not alter the possibility that some people can detect cell-phone emissions, particularly at maximal amplitude, and that possibility is something that could be tested for rather than argued about or even fought over. And whether the answer is positive or not, Alison should be able to enlist the assistance of a friend or two in staging a dozen or two double-blind tests to see whether her sleep disturbances are associated with the presence of one or more cellphones in close proximity.

      • Ali says:

        Jon, while the idea of participating in a few double-blind sleep experiments would be fun (I’ve never had the chance to be a study participant), I would note that, in my own anecdotal experience, the problem resolved itself. It was an acute bout of sleeplessness, not a chronic one, and it correlated quite closely to some stress in my life. When the stress was resolved, the sleeplessness resolved itself in short order. Meanwhile, I’ve been using this current phone as an alarm clock since sometime in the spring of 2011. I have not had 18+ months of disturbed sleep.

        • Jon Richfield says:

          Well firstly Ali, that is the best news. Sleeplessness is no fun and I am glad that yours passed. Secondly the rest makes sense and does rather blow away the therapist’s ideas. Poor chap! Seems he was quite excited. Oh well, sooner him than you!

        • Jeff Grigg says:

          Good to hear that it was temporary!

          So then it was definitely caused by alien fly-byes. >;->

          • Ali says:

            Yes, Aliens on their cell phones, They should know better than to text and fly!

          • mud says:

            Fly byes are the only ones considering they cant land in a reliable fashion.

            Medicos should stick to science but they have this old and odd 60’s TV notion prolferated amongst the lazy few.

            Cf Dr Oz! What a legend of 2000’s tv drivel.

  6. Doug Mathias says:

    or no “therapist” at all.

  7. Rob says:

    Not an MD, would take his advice with a (large) grain of salt.

  8. Dani Johnson says:

    Ali,
    I’m glad you were able to see through the advice your therapist gave you, and I’m glad your sleep habits finally returned to normal. I have a roughly similar experience back in the days when I actually had health insurance.

    I was seeing a therapist that brought up some questionable subjects on more than a few occasions. For instance, she kept wanting to talk about past lives and spirituality and death and the afterlife had nothing to do with the issues (general anxiety/panic attacks) I needed her help working out. She even told me once that she believed in past lives because she has vivid memories of some of her past lives, and she proceeded to tell me the details of some of these memories. I never specifically asked her to divulge those details of her personal life to me, and have no reason to care because I don’t believe in those things personally. Keep in mind that I don’t mind that she holds those beliefs, I just think that she, as a therapist, should keep her own opinions and especially spirituality to herself.

    Unfortunately, I lost my health insurance shortly after starting therapy, so I never got a chance to really see how she was. I can guarantee, though, that if she had offered up some hogwash alternative practice to treat my panic attacks I would have found another therapist pretty quickly.

    • Jon Richfield says:

      What drives me nuts is that that is all very well for educated (as opposed to having gone to college) people, but what about the mindless masses? (including those who have college degrees?) In our local gated village I have tried giving talks on quackery and those who actually proved receptive are of the order of a couple of percent. Those who called me for support when quack pitches alarmed them, (such as the reverse osmosis conductivity test scam) I could count an less than ten fingers. I have had more who smugly told me of all the things that the quantum Xeroid machines or practitioners cured (or were curing) them of.
      I despair; maybe I need a magnetic bracelet or something…

    • Raven says:

      If you are not Pagan/spiritual/Native American/etc. then do not choose a therapist who is there for those related reasons! Problem solved – the problem that is with you!

  9. Ben W. says:

    This reminded me of an odd experience I had as a teen. One night, I was texting with my girlfriend at the time, and began to doze off. So I wouldn’t miss her texts I put the phone on my forehead where the vibration was guaranteed to wake me.

    After a few texts and light dozes, I noticed that right before the phone buzzed, I would see a dull blue flash in my visual field with a rhythm similar to that of the obnoxious noise made by a cellphone next to an unguarded speaker. It happened perhaps 5 times over the course of the night, and I’ve never figured out what it was.

    My best guesses are that either the older phone gave out a strong enough radio burst that it stimulated my visual cortex (heck of a stretch I know) or that the phone was causing my nearby speakers to make that noise and my synesthesia was cuing on a sound I wasn’t aware I was hearing.

    Any thoughts or input people have would be welcome. Heck, I’ll even accept that I had a split-second dream if it is the best explanation for that one weird evening.

  10. Jon Richfield says:

    Undeniably interesting, but your visual cortex is around the BACK of your brain. It is likelier that the signalling handshake produced electromagnetic noise that stimulated your retinal sensors, or, more likely, the nerve fibres serving them. This is consistent with my son’s experiences. (Yes, I know it proves nothing — this is not about proof … yet!)
    Synaesthesia? Could be of course, but it strikes me as a bit thin.

  11. pacelr@cityofgainesville.org says:

    Cell phone radiation does not disrupt your sleep. Using the wretched thing during all your waking hours to the point that you reach for it in your sleep as a reflex does. There may be an actual physical addiction problem here with particularly obssessive users.

  12. cato3cato2 says:

    My mobile phone definitely keeps me awake if i sleep near it. I leave it downstairs inside my bag. The reason is it makes tiny little noises randomly throughout the night! Just little bips and dings. Maybe a vibration or similar. I turn off all notifications etc but random ones can get thru. VERY ANNOYING. Hence nobody will ever be able to contact me in a midnight emergency cos i hide that sucker away.

    • Raven says:

      …Um that’s why you put it on silent.

      • Alexandria Nick says:

        Some phones, annoyingly, still make noises on silent.

        Mine does. If I get a call when silenced, it still makes a beep when it pops the ‘missed call’ notification. I have no idea why it would do this.

        • Jeff Grigg says:

          Android phones used to have a “completely silent” ring setting — right “between” the lowest audible ring and “vibrate.” But later releases removed that feature. :-/

  13. cherylplotner says:

    Here’s something you may be missing~ think about when you’re on a flight and you’re requested to turn off your devices or put them in “airplane” mode. The reason for this is that cell phones, cordless phones, ipads and other wireless devices emit PULSED RF signals every 40 seconds or so (seeking or homing signals)~ EVEN WHEN THEY’RE IN SLEEP MODE OR NOT IN USE. RF pulses from passengers’ devices can interfere with the aviation electronics, which could obviously be dangerous.

    When you turn the ringer off on your phone at night, it still emits RF intermittently, and it is the pulsed RF that interferes with some people’s sleep. Doing a test to see whether using a cell phone for three hours BEFORE someone goes to sleep does nothing to investigate the effect of having pulsed RF emitting all night long. There is clearly more research needed.

    Just having your phone in the room or even the house could impact your sleep, if it’s not shut off or put into “airplane mode”. Some folks are more sensitive to pulsed RF than others. I use my phone for audio in my bedroom and I go into “settings”>”airplane mode” before turning in. After suffering horrible sleep disturbances and chronic (24/7) muscle tension in my forehead for several months and trying everything from exercise, sleeping pills, muscle relaxers to acupuncture, meditation and medical testing- all to no avail- I have experienced a HUGE improvement in the quality and quantity of my sleep since shutting off the wireless modem at night, ditching my cordless phone and putting my iphone into “airplane mode”.

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Having a cell phone on in an airplane does nothing to affect the plane or its instruments. And small emissions of radio and other light waves from cell phones are so tiny that they have no affect on humans. They’re dwarfed by the radiation from the sun, the moon, and the cosmic background radiation of the Universe itself. That’s why you’ve never gotten a sunburn from a cell phone. Scientists have pretty thoroughly researched this claim and good studies all come up with nothing. It’s way, way, way too tiny to have any affect. No one is any more sensitive to radio frequencies than anyone else, otherwise the entire world would be driving them up a wall non stop from birth to death. Again, there are massively more radiowaves coming from the cosmos than from anything on the Earth. You may feel relief from shutting off your devices, but you’re literally doing nothing at all to minimize the amount of electromagnetic energy you’re exposed to.

  14. Susan says:

    The problem would not reflect your usage but the phone being on. When on, it can emit radiowaves I got thinking about this because I just bought a smart watch and have slept poorly the last few nights. Same problem- if the watch is on, it’s emitting signals

    • Noah Dillon says:

      Just because it emits and receives signals doesn’t mean that it will disrupt your sleep. People have long been bombarded by microwaves and radio waves and etc. from the sun, much higher levels that from a smart watch. And yet people sleep fine in the daytime. Whole societies are rooted in daytime naps! Perhaps you’re sleeping poorly for another reason, or perhaps it is the watch (unlikely). This isn’t really good evidence that the watch is keeping you up. You could probably devise a pretty good test to gather more data.

  15. Connie says:

    Maybe you can bring it up to your therapist and see what s/he says about it. Maybe that’s part of therapy?…

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