Worst Science Article of the Week: Use a Cell Phone, Damage Your Baby

By Melissa Lafsky | May 20, 2008 3:17 pm

thumbMainstream news outlets are buzzing today about a new study from UCLA that found an apparent link between mothers using cell phones during pregnancy and their children developing behavioral problems. The story broke on Sunday, when Britain’s Daily Mail and The Independent both reported its findings.

From the headlines in these two papers (“Warning: Using a mobile phone while pregnant can seriously damage your baby” in The Independent) to the claims (“Women who use mobile phones when pregnant are more likely to give birth to children with behavioural problems, according to authoritative research”) and categorizations (stating that the study was conducted by “top scientists”) to … just about every other sentence, these stories do a pretty spectacular job of diluting the facts. And while The Independent may win the award for “most egregious science coverage,” with the Mail a close second, they certainly weren’t alone.

Researchers at UCLA and the University of Aarhus, Denmark, did in fact conduct a study of around 13,000 women (a decent sample size, but hardly “giant,” as The Independent calls it), and found a correlation between the women who used cell phones during pregnancy and women who had children with (what their mothers reported to be) behavioral or emotional problems, hyperactivity, or issues relating to other children.

The children were all born in Denmark in the late 1990s, and the research relied on surveys of the mothers concerning their phone use during pregnancy and their kids’ behavior during their first seven years. The mothers who’d used cell phones—which, given the low prevalence of mobile phones in the late ’90s, was only about half—reported a higher level of behavioral and other problems in their children.

As with all studies, correlation does not equal causation, and the researchers themselves have cautioned that these results could be explained by a host of other factors unrelated to cell phone use—such as the fact that mothers who had access to cell phones before they were cheap and ubiquitous may also be more likely to be in a certain socioeconomic class, have certain attitudes towards child rearing, spend less time with their children, be less likely to breastfeed—the list goes on.

One of the study’s co-authors, Dr. Jorn Olsen, a professor and chair of epidemiology at UCLA, has already stated on the record that the media’s take on the conclusiveness of the research has been “off target.” Whether cell phone companies experience a fallout remains to be seen—then again, all the would-be-panicking mothers out there might still be busy digesting the news that their stress while pregnant affects their baby’s immune system, their lack of farm exposure while pregnant makes their baby more susceptible to allergies, and their weight loss or gain while pregnant can effect their baby’s long-term health.

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