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Does Cell Phone Radiation Disrupt Your Sleep?

by Alison Hudson

September 6, 2013

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Donate A 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.

by Alison Hudson

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