Wireless tech and childhood development — Expert Reaction

A review paper published in Child Development claims that exposure to electromagnetic fields and radio-frequency radiation – via wireless technology – may be linked to neurodevelopmental problems in children.

The paper does not include any new data, but reiterates data from previous papers linking electromagnetic fields (EMF) and pulsed radiofrequency radiation from wireless devices to ADHD and autism in children.

The Science Media Centre asked experts for their reaction to the study. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Dr. Faraz Hasan, Senior Lecturer in Communication Engineering and Networks at Massey University comments:

“This study is basically a review of the previous works that examine the health issues associated with radio frequency exposure. It cites various research articles but does not give any new evidence about the harmful impacts of wireless communication.

“Most of the studies that are referred to are older than 2013 so it’s not exactly ‘new’ knowledge. No references or experimental results have been given to substantiate the statement that cumulative RF exposure will increase by 10 times in the presence of Wi-Fi and other devices.

“Having said all this, the impact of RF radiation on human wellbeing is an important concern, which should be dealt with by means of joint research done by people working in health and wireless technology domains. As far as New Zealand is concerned, the telecom operators are looking at rolling out the next generation of mobile phone technology called 5G. A proper and timely health check of the upcoming technology can come in handy.”

The UK Science Media Centre also gathered expert reaction on the review paper. Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Dr Rosa Hoekstra, Lecturer in Psychology, King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, said:

“A couple of things to note at the outset: The two authors of this paper do not appear to have a conventional academic affiliation, and write the paper under the affiliation of a consultancy (‘Sage associates’) and a non-governmental organisation (‘International Society of Doctors for Environment (ISDE) Scientific Office’). This does not necessarily discredit the paper in any way, but may mean that academic oversight available within conventional academic institutions may be lacking.

“The paper does not come with a conflict of interest statement – it is unclear whether the authors have a conflict of interest (for example through the consultancy offered by Sage associates). I am assuming the paper will have undergone the conventional route of peer review, though this draft of the paper does not make this explicit.

“About the paper itself: This publication does not present any new empirical data, it is primarily a position paper that sets out a hypothesis held by the authors. The authors try to weave together several threads of literature to come to their position. I think it is important to note that none of the evidence presented is directly related to autism or ADHD.

“All evidence discussed is indirect, for example discussing a possible relationship between wireless technologies and cancer, or between the use of portable technology and sleep problems. These type of associations (note, these are by no means confirmed and uncontroversial by themselves) cannot be extrapolated to suggest a link between wireless technology and autism or ADHD.

“Instead, the paper relies on speculation, highlighted by the frequent use of phrases such as ‘potentially harmful’ ‘plausible’ and ‘possible’. At present there is no evidence base suggesting a link between wireless technology and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and ADHD. This paper does not change this at all.”

Dr Sue Fletcher-Watson, Chancellor’s Fellow, Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences, University of Edinburgh, said:

Q: Is this a robust study?

“No. It is a non-systematic review containing no new evidence.”

Q: Are these claims and concerns supported by current evidence?

“No. The evidence cited is poor quality, and the review itself does not use systematic methods to search and present existing literature. Knowing the literature on technology and child development, the studies chosen seem to have been cherry-picked (though I would need to do my own systematic review to be sure). There is evidence of reliance on self-citation and on sources which do not come from peer-reviewed journals in places. In other places the authors extrapolate inappropriately from data on rodent models or data relating to different health outcomes (e.g. cancer).

Q: Is there a plausible mechanism by which electromagnetic fields from wireless technology affect childhood development?

“No. The authors present no plausible rationale whatsoever. Instead they bombard the reader with technical language to mask the lack of a coherent argument.”

Q: Are rates of ADHD and autism going up in line with wireless technology use? Are there any other reasons for this? Does it mean cause and effect?

“Rates of autism diagnosis have risen over the last 30 years, which can be attributed entirely to changing diagnostic criteria and increased awareness. There is no demonstrable correlation with technology use, and no plausible causal relation.”

Q: Should the public be concerned about wireless technologies as a result of this new paper?


Q: Are there any implications from this paper?

“No. Arguments like this one often seem expressly designed to scare-monger rather than to shed light on a scientific question. I am frankly astonished that it is being published in an otherwise-reputable journal such as Child Development.”

Prof Dorothy Bishop, Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology, University of Oxford, said:

“This review paper is more of a polemic than a serious scientific evaluation of evidence. These days the usual requirement for a review article is that it synthesises all available published evidence using clear and transparent criteria for selecting articles and synthesising information. This was not done here, and articles appear to have been selected to support the authors’ pre-existing views.

“The link with autism and ADHD is pure speculation, and consists of merely noting that the ‘chronically disrupted homeostasis’ postulated by the authors is consistent with the symptoms of these conditions.

“No evidence whatsoever is produced to confirm that there is a link between these conditions and exposure to electromagnetic waves. The potential impact of electromagnetic radiation on development is an important topic, but unless the evidence is evaluated objectively by academic researchers without vested interests it is hard to draw any conclusions. Alarmist reports like this do a serious disservice to parents.”

Prof Patrick Haggard, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, said:

“This is not a new study, but a review of other studies. The review is not comprehensive or systematic: several well-conducted studies that failed to show effects of RFR (pulsed radio frequency radiation) on cognition are not cited. Further, the review fails to distinguish clearly between the effects of RFR *emitted* by devices like mobile phones, wifi etc, and effects of other factors such as the specific activities that people use these devices for.”

Dr James Cusack, Director of Science, Autistica, said:

“There are many reasons why rates of autism diagnosis are increasing, including changes in public perception and recognition of autism.

“This review of previously conducted studies does not present any convincing evidence to suggest that wireless technologies cause autism.”

Declared conflicts of interests:

Dr Hoekstra: “I have no CoI to report. My research is funded by Autism Speaks and the Medical Research Council. These autism research studies do not consider environmental or epigenetic risk factors of autism, so are unrelated to the paper discussed here.”

Dr Fletcher-Watson: “I currently hold research funding from Theirworld; the Fondation Internationale a la Recherche Des Handicap; Economic and Social Research Council; Templeton World Charitable Foundation. I sit on the board of Scottish Autism. I have a partnership with app developer Interface 3 in which I may receive royalty payments if sales of our app for autistic children exceed a certain threshold. This has not yet occurred.”

Prof Bishop: “I am a member of the SMC’s Advisory Committee”

Others: None declared