by Tony Glover
Last Updated: Apr 19, 2011
There are growing health concerns surrounding the mushrooming use of consumer digital technology and the IT industry could be in line for huge legal actions if those fears prove correct.
Some health experts’ view of seemingly harmless devices such as mobile phones, game consoles and 3D TVs is similar to their assessment of smoking and heroin addiction.
A study released this month in the US asked about 1,000 students under the age of 25 in 10 countries – including Lebanon, Chile, China, the US, Uganda and the UK – to abstain from using all media for a full day.
Students’ reactions to being deprived of their mobile phones were far more extreme than had been anticipated by the report’s lead researchers, the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda and the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.
Cravings, depression and isolation were some of the symptoms widely identified in the study group – symptoms similar to what an addict withdrawing from hard drugs might feel.
The findings fuel growing concerns that, so far, little research has been done into the longer-term psychological effects of the constant use of digital communication devices.
One US student taking part in the study said: “I was itching like a crackhead because I could not use my phone.”
The study concluded: “If you are under 25, it doesn’t matter if you live in Chile or China, Slovakia, Mexico or Lebanon: you can’t imagine life without media.”
Many students have become dependent on devices. Deprived of access to social-networking sites such as Facebook, students found it hard to connect with friends or even find their way around without the help of smartphone applications using the satellite-based global positioning system. For some, reading the time on an ordinary analogue clock was difficult.
But even fears of long-term psychological damage pale beside research indicating users of mobile phones may be increasing their chances of developing brain cancer. This compounds long-standing fears concerning the levels of electromagnetic radiation generated by the millions of mobile phone masts sprouting in towns, cities and villages across the world.
A decade-long international study of the potential connection between brain cancer and mobile phone use co-ordinated by the International Agency for Research on Cancer was completed last year.
It reported people who have used mobile phones for at least 10 years for an average of at least 30 minutes a day have a substantially greater risk of developing brain tumours than people who do not use mobile phones.
But the study – conducted with participation by Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the UK – contained enough contradictory evidence to dissuade scientists from being absolutely confident that mobile phones cause brain cancer.
Mobile phone companies are also reluctant to acknowledge any serious health risks associated with their products for fear they might expose themselves to a flood of litigation.
But health authorities in the participating countries are paying close attention to the long-term health hazards of mobile phones. The UK’s health protection agency (HPA) has commissioned a team of top scientists to examine the report’s findings.
The agency previously warned: “Children should be discouraged from using mobile phones for non-essential calls.”
There are also fears that children’s sight could suffer long-term damage as a result of watching 3D images. Although 3D films have been around since the 1950s, relatively few were made over the years, and most cinema-goers perceived the technology as nothing more than a novelty.
But the potential health hazards of 3D imagery are receiving growing attention as devices such as TVs and game consoles increasingly offer 3D content.
Even companies making 3D-enabled entertainment devices now acknowledge that watching 3D might cause vision problems, particularly in children under the age of six. In December, Nintendo warned on its Japanese website that children six or younger should not play 3D games on the company’s 3DS game console.
Taken as a whole, the growing indications of serious health risks related to the spread of consumer IT are a legal time bomb for the consumer technology industry.