New Research: Using Your Cell Phone This Many Times Each Day Can Seriously Harm Fertility

Updated: Jan. 25, 2024

It's called a "cell phone" for a reason: A new Swiss study highlights how a ubiquitous habit might be playing into the growing infertility trend.

The inability to conceive is reportedly affecting almost 20% of American women who are trying. If you’re one of them, you’ve probably researched the simple changes you can make in your routine, such as cutting down on sugar and eating the best foods for fertility.

You may not be surprised that men’s choices can make a difference too, and researchers have newly identified a noteworthy decrease in the population’s semen quality. Marked by lower sperm concentration and total sperm count, this is a key measure of male fertility.

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In a study published in October 2023, researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, noted that while the average sperm concentration once was about 99 million sperm per milliliter, it has now fallen to less than half that: Roughly 47 million. The World Health Organization states that a sperm concentration below 15 million per milliliter greatly complicates the ability to conceive. Furthermore, when the concentration drops below 40 million, it reduces the likelihood of successful conception.

The research team says this significant decline in semen quality is a result of contemporary environmental and lifestyle influences, like obesity, alcohol consumption, stress, pesticide exposure, and smoking. Among all these, the researchers felt that electromagnetic radiation exposure from mobile phones stands out as a concern. Their findings, detailed in the peer-reviewed journal Sterility and Fertility, indicate that growing dependence on digital devices may profoundly influence biological functions in previously unrecognized ways.

Rita Rahban, PhD, a senior researcher and teaching assistant in the Department of Genetic Medicine and Development at UNIGE, highlights the study’s distinct approach. In a press release, she commented that previous studies that had evaluated the relationship between the use of mobile phones and semen quality were performed on “relatively small” sample sizes of participants and usually didn’t take lifestyle behaviors into account. The participants had also been recruited from fertility clinics, which Dr. Rahban stated “has led to inconclusive results” as it likely didn’t represent the semen characteristics of the broader population.

To adjust for this, Dr. Rahban’s team analyzed data from 2,886 healthy Swiss men between the ages of 18 and 22—representing active ages for reproductive health and engagement with technology. These participants self-reported details about their lifestyle choices, overall health, and, specifically, their mobile phone usage patterns.

The study’s findings were intriguing. Men who engaged in mobile phone use more than 20 times daily showed a sperm concentration of 44.5 million per milliliter. In contrast, men who used their phones less than once a week exhibited a higher sperm concentration of 56.5 million per milliliter. This marked a notable 21% reduction in sperm concentration among the heaviest users compared with those who used their mobile phones minimally.

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The role of network generations

Another interesting finding from the study was how the relationship between mobile phone use and sperm quality evolved alongside advancements in mobile network technology. During the initial phase of the study, from 2005 to 2007, which aligns with the era of 2G networks, the negative impact on sperm concentration was quite noticeable.

However, as mobile technology progressed to 3G and then to 4G, this adverse effect appeared to lessen. This observation points to the possibility that the improvements in mobile technology, especially the decrease in transmission power moving from 2G to 4G, could have reduced some of the detrimental effects on sperm health.

The research, however, did not conclusively link mobile phone usage to other aspects of semen quality, such as the movement (motility) and structure (morphology) of sperm. It was also noted that the habit of carrying a mobile phone in one’s pants pocket did not show a significant correlation with any reduction in semen quality indicators.

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Implications for modern technology use

It’s important to understand that the testicles produce new sperm every 10 weeks, which promotes regular renewal. This indicates that any negative impact from mobile phone use on sperm health may be temporary. Dr. Rahban provides reassurance, noting that such effects are unlikely to cause long-term fertility issues.

Nonetheless, the study opens up questions about how mobile phone usage might affect sperm, such as potential changes in temperature or hormonal regulation in the testes, which are investigations yet to be fully researched. Additionally, there is a growing need for more research on how mobile phone use might affect women’s fertility, as most current studies have focused on laboratory animals.

The findings from this research highlight the importance of being aware of the potential unintended effects of digital habits on health. It emphasizes the need for more in-depth research to clarify the link between mobile phone use and sperm health and simple ways we might need to adjust our technology use in response.

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