SCMP Thursday, March 15, 2001
Mobile phones might smarten up users: study
Mobile phone radiation has been linked to everything from dizziness to brain tumours. Now a University of Hong Kong psychologist suggests it could even make phone users brighter.
However, she also admits they might just be naturally smarter.
Teenagers who regularly used a mobile phone performed "significantly better" than those who had not in brain-function tests by Dr Tatia Lee Mei-chun.
Dr Lee, from the university's department of psychology, stressed the findings were only preliminary and said she hoped they would not be used to stigmatise people without mobiles.
Her study had 72 local teenagers - roughly half of whom were mobile users - sit a series of simple tests and measured how long it took them to finish.
She said yesterday that the mobile users performed "significantly better" than their peers, despite having similar academic records.
There were two possible reasons for this, she explained. Either that electro-magnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones somehow made the brain work better, or that the kind of people who bought mobiles were naturally inclined to do better on the test.
"There's a theory that the local heating effect [around the ear when a mobile is used] causes some change in the brain tissue, bringing about an increase in processing speed," Dr Lee said. "The natural selection idea is that those who find it difficult to focus on multiple tasks will opt not to use a phone."
There are more than 5.3 million mobile users in Hong Kong - enough for four handsets for every five people.
Dr Lee said the long-term effects of mobile phone use were still unknown and that her research simply pointed to the need for more study of the effects of radiation.
"It's very controversial. People must understand that this is just an initial step," she said. "I'm worried parents will start to think 'my child should use a mobile phone and if they don't, there's a problem', or they'll be labelled. That's not the message.
"To draw a conclusion and say 'I should get a mobile phone for my son or daughter' would be a social disaster."
The test on which mobile users outperformed other Form Five students was a kind of "join-the-dots" exercise, in which they had to link in numerical order 25 numbers spread randomly on a page. They also did the same test linking 25 numbers and 25 letters in alternating order.
Dr Lee said people who did well on the test were usually able to focus their attention better in the "real world".