Electromagnetic fields from cell phones pose essentially no risk to unborn babies or their pregnant mothers, according to a new study. In fact, the findings suggest that mobile phones may even have a positive impact on the fetus. Really, it’s the least they can do—considering how many problems mobile phone use will likely cause those kids later in life.
“Our investigation revealed, for the first time, that maternal mobile phone use may actually have a positive impact,” study coauthor Jan Alexander of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said in a statement. “More specifically, mobile phone use in pregnancy was associated with lower risk of the child having low language and motor skills at 3 years of age.”
The results challenge multiple past studies that have linked prenatal cell phone use to behavioral problems in children. Not that this is the first nail in that coffin—plenty of research, including large Dutch and Spanish birth cohort studies, have challenged the notion that cell phones hurt fetuses or affect development. The ambiguous data prompted Alexander and colleagues to run a large study of how cell phone use during pregnancy impacts the child’s long-term mental health.
Alexander and colleagues analyzed data on 45,389 mother-infant pairs, and tracked their progress from 17 weeks gestation until the children were five years old. At 17 weeks and 30 weeks, each mother reported how often she used her cell phone. Then, when the children born from these pregnancies were at ages three and five, researchers assessed their language development and motor skills. After adjusting for maternal age, education, personality, year of delivery, and other factors, the researchers found that kids born to mothers who used mobile phones showed a 31 percent lower risk language delay at age three, compared to children of mothers who reported no mobile phone use, and an 18 percent lower risk of under-developed motor skills. They found no link between prenatal cell phone use and poor communication skills.
Alexander recognizes that mobile phones do not somehow make fetuses smarter so they develop faster. “We think this protective effect is more likely to be explained by factors not measured in this study having an impact on the mobile phone use and child’s neurodevelopment,” he says. “Rather than the maternal mobile phone use in itself.” The authors highlight other limitations, too—the study relied on self-reporting and, since it ran between 1999 and 2008 it is hard to distinguish between mothers who used smartphones and those who had old-fashioned flip phones.
As a result, Alexander and his team are cautious about interpreting positives of prenatal cell phone use. “The beneficial effects we report should be interpreted with caution, due to the limitations common in observational studies,” he says. “But our findings should at least alleviate any concern mothers have about using their mobile phones while pregnant.”