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The world’s largest ever study into whether mobile phones are interfering with children’s brains has been launched by British scientists.
The £1million investigation will examine whether memory, attention and other thinking skills are affected by radiation from the devices.
The findings of the study, which will involve 2,500 children aged 11 and 12, will help update advice to parents about safe levels of use. Current guidelines are a decade old.
An estimated 70 per cent of 11- to 12-year-olds in the UK now own a mobile phone. By age 14, the figure is 90 per cent.
There is no conclusive evidence that mobile phones damage adult health.
But a study earlier this month suggested those who talk on their mobile for more than 15 hours a month – or half an hour a day – are three times more likely to develop brain cancer.
It is thought children may be more vulnerable to any damage due to their developing nervous systems and thinner skulls, which may absorb higher levels of energy.
Paul Elliott, a professor in environment and health at Imperial College London, is helping lead the study.
He said the front and temporal lobes of the brain were close to where a mobile phone was used. He added: ‘When children get to secondary school their brains are still developing, particularly the frontal lobe which deals with reasoning and working memory and the temporal lobe which deals with speech.’
The research team says exposure to radio waves is lower with later phones and varies between models.
Professor Elliott said: ‘Evidence available to date is reassuring and shows no association between exposure to radio frequency waves from mobile phone use and brain cancer in adults in the short term.
‘But the evidence available regarding long-term heavy use and children’s use is limited and less clear. This is new technology and it is widespread – it is responsible to investigate whether it is having an effect.’
More than 160 secondary schools in the outer London area will today receive invitations to enrol pupils aged 11 and 12 into the study.
Parents will be asked to give permission for their children to take part in online assessments of their cognitive skills, and provide information jointly about their lifestyle and level of mobile use, including data from mobile phone firms.
Some children will wear monitors to check their level of exposure to radio waves.
At the end of the three-year study, children will undergo another battery of tests.
The study will not contain a group of children for comparison who do not use mobile phones, partly because it would be impossible to recruit a specific set of non-users. However, some children within the study may not have a phone.
Researchers will attempt to attribute any significant changes to mobile phone use or other influences. The findings of the study, commissioned by the Department of Health, are expected in 2018. The cost of Scamp – the Study of Cognition, Adolescents and Mobile Phones – will be split between mobile phone firms and health agencies.
Guidelines dating back to 2000 – and barely changed in 2005 – say children under 16 should be encouraged to use mobiles for essential calls only.
Where possible children should use a hands-free kit or stick to text messages. When they have to make calls, they are advised to keep them short.
Scamp’s principal investigator Dr Mireille Toledano, of Imperial College, said: ‘This will be the largest study in the world to date. We will be able to look at “brain training” from frequent use of mobile phones and any health effects such as headaches and sleep disturbances from using mobile phones late at night.’