Digital devices — cellphones, computers and tablets — are ubiquitous in the lives of most adults and children. They influence our physical and emotional health as well as our social and work relationships. They make us feel more connected to friends, colleagues and family, and more effective and efficient in our work and play.

Digital devices are widely used in schools in the belief that they will enhance and improve educational outcomes. However, the risks of these devices may be under-appreciated, according to a Special Section on Contemporary Mobile Technology and Child and Adolescent Development, published in the journal Child Development. The articles look at the ways that technology influences the health, safety and well being of children and teens.

The authors of the articles in this issue generally conclude that we all need to look harder and think more clearly about these devices in order to maximize their positive effects and minimize the problems they create.

The Risks of Electromagnetic Radiation

Wireless and cellular technologies rely on electromagnetic fields (EMF) and pulsed radio frequency radiation (RFR), and these forces may result in neurodevelopmental and neurobehavioral changes, particularly in teens and children. EMF and RFR are suspected to cause epigenetic changes in the ways that genes are expressed in the developing fetus and in young children, say the authors of this review. This means that they alter the way our genetic programming is expressed.

The Academy of Pediatrics recommends “unplugged” family time as away to reduce digital devices’ role in eroding parent-child bonds.

Such changes in genetic expression in children and teens who are still developing can lead to later problems with neurologic development, memory, learning, attention, concentration, behavior and sleep quality. Both animal studies and observational studies in humans support the neurobiological basis of some of the problems attributed to digital technology. For example, a Kaiser study found that 8- to 18- year-olds use media roughly 7.5 hours per day, and excessive screen time was correlated with violent behavior, poor school performance, lower reading scores, sleep disturbances and becoming overweight.

The American Academy of Pediatrics calls for limitations on screen time, based on current research, and these recommendation and findings are echoed in other major studies and health care organizations guidelines.

Developing Brains and Thinner Skulls
The brain is the main target organ for the radio frequency radiation (RFR) emitted by cellular phones. RFR poses a wide range of potential threats to children and teens — neurologic disease, physiologic addiction, cognition, sleep, behavioral problems and cancer. Studies have shown that because children have thinner skulls, smaller heads and higher conductivity in their brain tissue, they are uniquely vulnerable to RFR until about age 20. “No previous generation has been exposed during childhood and adolescence to this kind of radiation,” writes Lennart Hardell, a Swedish oncologist and professor at Örebro University Hospital in Örebro, Sweden in a Commentary.

Hardell cites studies showing an increase in brain tumors, specifically gliomas and acoustic neuromas, in those who used mobile phones before age 20 and a Russian finding that childhood mobile phone users are more vulnerable to problems with memory, attention, irritability, learning and cognitive skills, and other neurodevelopmental issues. An evaluation of the scientific evidence on the brain tumor risk was made in May 2011 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer at World Health Organization. The scientific panel reached the conclusion that RF radiation from devices that emit nonionizing RF radiation in the frequency range 30 kHz–300 GHz is a Group 2B, that is, a “possible human carcinogen.”

Keeping kids away from phones is particularly difficult because mobile phones have so many other capabilities, such as cameras, computer access and communication modalities, and the adults who use them model a reliance on their phones as critical for daily functioning. This is particularly true for parents who use their cell phones excessively and obsessively even while out with their children. Children who experience this are more likely to integrate these devices into their daily lives at a very young age, mimicking their parents' use, increasing their exposure when their systems are still developing.

The Distraction of “Technoference”

It's not just that parents’ reliance digital devices provides an unhealthy example for kids. Digital devices interfere with the quality of parent-child relationships. A study on parent distraction caused by digital technology looked at the effect of technoference, or interference by use of technology, on parent-child interaction and on child behavior.

Technoference includes constantly checking email and instant messaging, talking on the phone during parent-child interaction, attending to the phone screen instead of the child, and continuing to think about mobile phone messages or phone conversations even when not on a device.

Messages can wait. Your years with your children and their childhoods and adolescence are too important to spend them distracted.

When parents self-reported more technoference, children's aggression and acting out, as well as anxiety, loneliness and depression, all rose, the study found. This was particularly true when it was mothers, rather than fathers, who were distracted by their phone, perhaps because children spend more time with their mothers. While the authors caution against overreaction to their initial study, they call for more awareness and research into the impact of digital technology on parent-child relationships and on interpersonal interactions among family members. The Academy of Pediatrics recommends “unplugged” family time as away to reduce digital devices’ role in eroding parent-child bonds.

Physical Safety
Just as parents are distracted from their children while using digital technology, kids are also at risk of distraction. The issue of physical safety while using digital technology was examined in a section on the risks to young pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers.

Injuries related to transportation make up the largest portion of deaths among children ages 5 to 24 in the U.S. Inattention caused by the use of digital technology contributes significantly to unintentional road injuries and is highest among youth.

When children and teens use digital technology, they are not paying attention to traffic. They are looking at their screens. They are not listening to sounds of oncoming vehicles because they are using earphones. They are not thinking about safe walking, cycling or driving because their thoughts are distracted by the content of their cell phones. Often they are not holding the steering wheels of cars or handle bars of bikes because they are manually using their devices.

Their multitasking dilutes the attention available for the challenging tasks of safe driving, riding and walking. Digital technology has a significant effect on youth safety in driving, walking and cycling situations, and decreases their ability to avoid hazards or respond effectively to them such as by slowing down or changing direction. The authors of this section believe that more laws are needed to address these safety issues.

Sleep Loss
More all-pervasive and potentially damaging is the impact digital technology has on the amount of sleep teens and preteens get. Teens who stay up at night playing games, using social media or texting with friends when they should be sleeping, not only lose the rejuvenation sleep provides, they disrupt their bodies’ clocks.

Cell phones play a major role in the social life of teens, allowing them to connect with individuals and groups whenever they want. Their use at night, when teens should be sleeping, disrupts sleep in at least three ways: the use of cell phones displacing sleep time; the impact of the screen lights on melatonin production and the sleep cycle; and the potential for the content of cell phone communication to be disturbing or arousing because of its emotional content.

Adolescents need 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. Period. Homework and after school jobs can keep kids up late and digital technology use consumes more time. Lack of sleep can bring on mood, self-esteem issues and a decreased ability to cope with the many challenges of adolescence. While the authors of this segment acknowledge the many social benefits that can come from digital phone use, they stress that late night use is an important risk factor for psychosocial maladjustment and poor school performance.

Digital technology is not going away, and that is all the more reason why parents need to come up with a game plan and some house rules for its use. The best way to begin is with your own use of digital media and devices. It sets a standard if your children see you putting your phone or tablet away for meals, family time or bedtime, and refusing to answer the phone or texts when driving or having a conversation. Messages can wait. Your years with your children and their childhoods and adolescence are too important to spend them distracted.