Ask LH: Is It Dangerous To Keep A Smartphone In The Bedroom?

Ask LH: Is It Dangerous To Keep A Smartphone In The Bedroom?

Hi Lifehacker, My partner doesn’t like to have mobile phones in the bedroom while we sleep. I can understand this from a “not wanting to be woken up by irritating text message” point of view, but there is also the issue of the radiation that emanates from the little suckers as they sit there recharging. Is this a genuine health concern, a hippy fallacy, is the truth somewhere in the middle, or is the jury still out? Thanks, Bed Phone

Sleeping picture from Shutterstock

Note: This was the winning question in our recent competition to win an HTC One smartphone, courtesy of Optus. We received lots of interesting questions and we will aim to answer as many as possible in the weeks ahead — but this is the lucky question that actually gets the phone. Thanks everyone for entering, and thanks to Optus for supplying the prize.

Dear BP,

The short answer: while there is no clear evidence as yet directly linking bedroom usage of mobile phones to specific health issues, there are reasons why it might not be a good idea for your overall health regardless.

The long answer: to date, the evidence that mobile phones cause health problems (cancer being the most frequently cited risk) is inconclusive. A review of studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that RF-EMF transmissions were “possibly carcinogenic”, which is a fairly qualified response. There certainly hasn’t been enough research to definitively state it’s not a problem, especially since mobile phones as a widespread phenomenon are (in medical terms) a relatively recent development. However, those studies which have been conducted don’t suggest any clear evidence of a sustained health risk.

What’s worth noting in this context is that any risk that does exist is much higher if you’re actually holding the phone to your head. Standard risk minimisation advice in this field is to use a hands-free kit. As such, if your phone is residing near to your bed purely to serve as an alarm, the potential risk is minimal. If you put your phone into flight mode, so that it’s not attempting to use either mobile or Wi-Fi networks, it’s essentially zero.

With all that said, however, there is one very good health reason not to have a bedside mobile phone: it’s likely to play havoc with your sleep patterns. We’ve written before about how using electronic devices immediately before sleeping can make it much harder to get a good night’s sleep, since the bright screen inhibits the production of melatonin and places the brain ina more alert mode. Phones definitely fall into the ‘bad’ category in this regard, along with computers and TVs (non-backlit ebook readers such as the Kindle are OK).

Not keeping your phone by your bed makes it less likely you’ll decide to indulge in a quick bout of gaming, social networking or web browsing right before you go to sleep. If you’re disciplined enough to simply dock your phone and sleep, good on you, but discipline is a quality found in widely varying quantities. For many of us, removing temptation is the best bet.

A final thought: relationships always involve compromise. The health risks of having a mobile in the bedroom might be minimal, but if your partner feels strongly about it, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to take a stand on the issue. You can still enjoy your phone in the rest of the house.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • im no expert here, but if the radiation was bad enough to affect you from having it, in standby mode, on the bedside table in a room with even half decent circulation, them im pretty sure those who have there phones glued to there heads would look like characters from fallout and all teenagers would have hideous mutated pocket surroundings

    • Umm, radiation isn’t a gas, it doesn’t just float around in the room like perfume. Having good circulation isn’t going to affect whatever phone radiation does, if anything

      (otherwise, though, I agree with you completely!)

        • Actually, the problem with chernobyl and fukushima are radioactive gas and vapour releases, so theoretically, if you had really strong helicopters to blow the radioactive isotopes back into the containment vessel so they don’t get carried by the wind, then it would work 😛

          But a concrete dome works a LOT better
          Too bad one isn’t being built for fukushima

          But when talking about microwave emissions (like phones), circulation isn’t a factor

      • fair enough like i said no expert, i just assumed that circulation would help dissipate the radiation, i guess it more just sits there and gets weaker either way point is the same 😛

  • How did this question win a competition?

    That would be like me asking “Does magic keep planes in the air, is jesus carrying the planes safely to their destination or is a combination, like magic jesus riding rainbows?” in order to win flying lessons

  • I think its hilarious that she thinks not having the phone in the bedroom will make her more safe from RF-EMF transmissions.
    FYI, radio waves be it TV, AM, FM, mobile phone, solar flares, microwaves, wi-fi etc etc will penetrate your walls. Unless of course she’s wearing her tin-foil hat. .

      • Yes the assumption that it is a woman having an issue with it is rather amusing. While I’ve certainly known my fair share of ladies with some eccentric ideas (And behaviours), there is a similar percentage of men that I know who share similar ideas & behaviours.

        Perhaps it has to do with the choice of image used for the article.

        • Considering most people will imagine hypotheticals as relating to their circumstances it’s more likely that we have straight males who simply imagine their girlfriend when they hear the term partner without any more implicit sexism.

          Similarly most people (Females included) tend to assume a narrator who is unidentified is male. Going similarly with that logic most people assume people are straight till they see evidence otherwise.

          • LOL! Yeah, major oversight on my behalf. Oh man.
            Zimmy got it in one, i imagined the relationship was a hetero one like mine, (plus the pic is that of a woman) but it could totally have been a lady talking about her man. Or a same-sex relationship…
            Point taken. Will not make assumptions.

    • I think it is because the person asking the question used the term partner which is usually a term females use to describe their b/f or husband.

      Sorry replied to wrong person, meant to reply to thrillhouse

  • Your partner is worried about radiation from phones? Here, have a bigger brighter more powerful one! And an answer encouraging you not to use it around bedtime!

    A bit strange.

  • @michael_debyl, not only have you assumed the genders of people in the article in your reply, you also state without any evidence that “Nearly everything emits similar radiation …”. Does that include the partner!? Lol.

  • When I read articles like this I sometimes feel like im the only person in the world who doesn’t feel compelled to constantly play with their phone.

    I love technology and things like the Nintendo DS but I think I have this association of mobile phones with working and I just want nothing to do with it when I am at home.

  • To the best of my knowledge, there is no known mechanism that would allow non-ionising electromagnetic radiation that is used by mobile devices to cause cancer or other medical complications. EM doesn’t even produce noticeable heating effects until you really ramp things up.
    Please stop scaring people with the idea of “mobile phone radiation”. It’s not magic.

    • To the best of your knowledge, you said. Have you not seen those brain scans of people with high phone usage, where one side (the side they hold their phones on) shows the effect of the microwave radiation?

      • The scans I’ve seen usually depict slightly increased glucose metabolism, which indicates brain activity, and it’s usually seen in the front of the brain, rather than the area near where the phone actually is. It may correlate to phone radiation but it’s completely insufficient to show causation.

        However, Mongoose is right that non-ionising radiation doesn’t cause cancer or medical complications. The worst it can do is heat or burn, and the energy levels in mobile phones are far too low for that to be a possible risk.

  • Seems like the list of things that are “possibly carcinogenic” gets longer than the list of things that are “not carcinogenic” by the day.

    • That’s because in this classification system ‘possibly carcinogenic’ actually means something closer to ‘there is no evidence to suggest this is a carcinogen, but we can’t rule it out’. The problem is that in reality you cant prove a negative, only the absence of a positive. ie showing in a study(or countless) that microwave radiation didn’t cause cancer, doesnt prove that it doesn’t, only that you couldn’t provide evidence that it does

  • I bet I’d get more radiation from my mobile phone than from the Sun. But then, I work in a converted warehouse, not a lot of natural light around.

  • The “possibly carcinogenic” means nothing more than “it hasn’t yet been shown to be safe”. I.e. sounds worse than it is.

    Phone radiation is non-ionising: tell your girlfriend not to worry about it.

  • The radiation emitted is ‘ microwave ‘ radiation and not ionic radiation ( which is the bad kind). So if you are worried about that don’t blast your food with 1000 watts of microwave radiation.

  • The Inverse Square Law means you should be concerned about having mobile phones next to your bed beaming high powered microwaves to reach a cellphone tower kilometers away.

    At the very least, your phone will be keeping a passive bookkeeping connection with the cellphone tower, and the waves emitted do have an effect on your braincells.

    Some people are more sensitive to EMR and will have disturbed sleep if they have mobiles or wifi on at night, it takes a while for your braincells to calm back down once they’ve been excited, there are studies that show this takes hours.

    Braincells are not the only things EMR can stimulate, your body’s natural functions can be disrupted by constant stress on your cells from EMR, it can cause faulty cell replication (and this can lead to cancer, it’s not just ionising radiation and heat that can do it), it taxes the immune system and leads to poorer health in general as well.

    I would not be happy living near a TV, radio, cell broadcast tower because the inverse square law means you’re getting big doses the closer you are to the extremely high powered emitters. I wouldn’t worry too much if the cellphones are in another room (again inverse square), and I would keep cellphone/wifi use to a minimum (do I really need to irradiate my body to watch cat videos on my phone?), but the power levels and range from towers are beyond any single phone.

    There is a lot of evidence to suggest Bee colony collapse disorder (found globally and appeared only in recent decades) is linked to cellphone towers

    Also downplaying the risks by saying high powered high frequency microwaves are as safe as infrared is downright ridiculous. Infrared from your sleeping partner is limited in wattage and penetration. Comparing manmade excess constant EMR to natural intermittent radiation from solar flares or cosmic rays is absurd, they are not equivalent at all.

    Just the very fact that sperm counts drop when people use wifi should be a sign that perhaps there is damage being done that’s not well understood, there are simply NO long term studies for cellphones, wifi and other “safe” technologies like GMOs, we are guinea pigs.

    Another study shows: “The reproductive health of the average man has fallen sharply in the last two decades, a study has shown, as the number and quality of sperm decreases drastically.”
    Hrmmm, and what major lifestyle changes has our world adopted in the past two decades? Ubiquitous mobile phone and GMO consumption should be considered as possible candidates.

    Now that we have created a society dependent on wireless transmissions, is it a health hazard for developing fetuses in pregnant mothers or young children? Where are the safety studies? Or will we wake up one day in a ‘Children of Men’ scenario?

    I have given you a starting point, now it is YOUR JOB to educate yourself and USE AT YOUR OWN RISK in a way that does not put my health at risk. There is nothing wrong with being cautious, none of your ancestors would have survived without caution.

    How long did it take for society to figure out cigarettes were bad?
    Now ask yourself how long have all these technologies been around…

    • Could the person who downvoted my post, at least comment where they think I am misguided?
      Or is that the standard response to anything you don’t understand/like.

      • For one, much of what you wrote is your own speculation that isn’t backed by even the sources you did provide. Mobile phones don’t produce ‘high power’ radiation. Peak GSM output is 2 watts and CDMA is half that. Since you courteously pointed out – repeatedly – the inverse square law, you should already be aware that having a mobile phone only one metre away from you reduces the radiation your head is exposed to by about 99.7% compared to holding it against your head.

        Yes, radiation excites glucose metabolism in the brain. No, increased glucose metabolism isn’t linked to disturbed sleep or anything negative, for that matter.

        The study on sperm exposure to radiation was academic and had no real world implications – the sperm in the study was in an uninsulated container and was exposed directly to half a watt of radiation. It has no bearing whatsoever on reality and the insulating effect of organ tissue. The authors even agreed in the article it was “not really biologically relevant for humans”.

        Your comment on declining fertility and increased radiation is a classic example of meaningless correlation, which has no weight whatsoever in scientific analysis.

        It’s very easy to scour the internet and find all manner of pseudoscience, crackpots, people who take real studies and reword the conclusions to say the opposite of what was intended, etc. that support literally any viewpoint you can imagine. Nothing you linked above, incidentally, would have met Wikipedia’s standards on reliable scientific sources. I would expect if you’re going to make claims contrary to the current corpus of scientific research, that you would be able to reference specific findings in peer-reviewed papers.

    • Please keep in mind the frequencies of EM. From lowest to highest in the spectrum (and longest wavelength to shortest).
      Radio < microwaves < infra-red < visible light < UV < x-ray < gama-rays
      Phones operate in the lower end of the spectrum that we’ve labelled ‘microwaves’.
      The typical wattage of the phone’s transmitter is about 0.5W (maybe as much as 1W), a cell tower is less than 100W . A person emits about 100W in IR.
      Given the inverse square law I can only conclude that a person sleeping next to you is giving off more EM at a higher frequency and higher intensity if you’re lying next to them. You’re right about penetration depths are higher for microwaves which is about 17mm for muscle tissue at 2.4GHz. About 20% is converted into heat in the first 2mm. How much heat is dependant on wattage. I’m not trying to say that lying next to a person or that higher frequencies of EM is necessarily a health hazard. I’m just putting things into perspective.

      Microwave emitters have been in use for a while now… radio and TV stations, microwave ovens (much higher wattage than phones or cell towers BTW), satellite communications, and RADAR come to mind.

      At least we agree that education is a good thing.

      • Ok cheers for that, I did not know that cellphone towers operated around 100w,
        It appears that during the 90s, they used around 300-500w, but now it’s commonly around 100w
        “Although the FCC permits an effective radiated power (ERP) of up to 500 watts per channel (depending on the tower height), the majority of cellular or PCS cell sites in urban and suburban areas operate at an ERP of 100 watts per channel or less.”
        I will research more as I’d like to know what the standards are in Australia,

        But you also have to factor in real world conditions, how much EMR is recieved from all sources
        When in the CBD, you’ll be in the presence of multiple towers, multiple wifi hotspots, countless phones (mobile and cordless). And now we’re going to add more emitters, a phone for every child, smart meters into the mix.
        When you compare all that to how life was just a mere 20 years ago, it might explain health trends that have appeared in the last 20 years. I think a little bit of caution should be exercised.
        By comparison, cosmic background microwave radiation is only 5-10 watts.

        There’s a lot of interesting stuff here, that even I need to read in more detail

        Radio and TV I am not concerned with, unless there’s a tower nearby as they do require a lot of power to emit. Microwave ovens contain the microwaves inside, but a strong EMField will wrap around the unit when in operation, I’m less concerned about these. As far as I know, sat comms aren’t pointed at people and RADAR has been known to cause health issues for technicians dealing with it.

      • Yeah, I’ve heard that one about the pesticides,
        I don’t think that rules out the effects microwaves have on bees
        There’s no reason why it can’t be both factors

        Lower birthrate, but also lower quality sperm resulting in people with compromised health.
        Do we want a world full of sick and disabled people? 😛

        And what effects do microwaves have on kids as their reproductive organs are developing? Will they grow up to be sterile? Will we only find out in 10-20 years when it’s too late to reverse? 😛

  • What about as a safety thing?

    I don’t have a landline so my mobile is kept close to my bed, because if something happens and someone needs to reach me, they can at least keep calling me and the vibrations of my phone will eventually wake me up. Or if there’s an emergency you have it right there with you.

    If you do have a landline in your bedroom then it’s probably ok.

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