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March 8, 2022

Cell phone use and fertility

Americans use their cell phones, on average, around 5 hours per day — and when we’re not using them, they’re typically at hand or in our pockets. Let’s explore what the research says about the effect of cell phone use on fertility, other potential impacts of frequent device use, and how to prevent your mobile from impacting your sperm quality.

Key takeaways

  • Cell phones emit radiofrequency radiation, or radio waves, which have been shown to negatively affect sperm quality and quantity — and the more we use them, the more at risk we may be for damage.
  • Radiation from cell phones may be more impactful when devices are kept in the front pockets, in close proximity to the reproductive organs.
  • Frequent cell phone and wireless device use can have other potential impacts on male fertility, from overheating the scrotum to disrupting the circadian rhythm and exacerbating a sedentary lifestyle.

Understanding cell phone radiation

Like most electronic devices, cell phones emit low levels of electromagnetic radiation in the form of radiofrequency energy, or radio waves. Phones that use second-, third-, or fourth-generation technology (2G, 3G, and 4G) emit radiofrequency in the range of 0.7–2.7 GHz. Fifth generation (5G) cell phones are anticipated to bring this frequency spectrum up to 80 GHz. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth also use radio waves, with a frequency of around 2.4 GHz.

The radiation from cell phones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth is considered “non-ionizing,” meaning it’s low frequency and low energy — too low to damage the DNA inside cells. This can be contrasted to the radiation from UV rays or X-rays which is higher frequency (by several orders of magnitude), high energy, and can damage cells over time.

However, there’s still evidence that cell phone exposure can impair fertility, even if the electromagnetic radiation is not considered powerful enough to cause more significant issues.

What the research says about mobile phones and male fertility

Numerous cross-sectional studies have revealed associations between cell phones and lower sperm quantity and quality, especially when devices were kept in the front pocket of your pants, close to the reproductive organs.

A 2018 study shows a clear connection between radiofrequency electromagnetic fields, such as the fields created by cell phones, and “deleterious effects” on all sperm parameters, including sperm count, motility, and morphology.

Here is what other research says about how mobile phones affect male fertility:

Cell phone use and sperm count

In a one study of semen analyses from young men, researchers found that cell phone use was associated with decreased semen volume, sperm concentration, and total sperm count, and that a longer daily duration of talking on a cell phone resulted in a higher impact on fertility.

Cell phone use and sperm motility/viability

Sperm motility refers to how many sperm are moving properly, while viability refers to the percentage of live sperm in the semen sample.

In one 2014 meta-analysis, researchers found that exposure to mobile phones correlated with a reduction in sperm motility (by 8%) and viability (by 9%). Another 2016 review investigated the effects of electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones on the male reproductive system, looking at 27 studies of both humans and animals. In 21 one of those studies, there were negative consequences of exposure on semen parameters, and 11 of the 15 that investigated sperm motility noted significant declines associated with mobile phone use.

Cell phone use and sperm DNA fragmentation

Sperm DNA fragmentation refers to a break or separation in the DNA contained within sperm, which may lead to an embryo’s failure to develop, miscarriage (possibly recurring), or genetic abnormalities or illness within the offspring.

In this 2013 study, researchers found that subjects who used mobile phones for more than four hours a day, and in particular those who placed the device in their pants pocket, had significantly altered sperm DNA fragmentation. The average person in the US uses their cell phone for 5–6 hours per day.

Oxidative stress, cell phones, and infertility

Oxidative stress is damage from too many free radicals in the body. Free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species (ROS), are unstable molecules produced as natural byproducts of daily life. At low levels, ROS are not typically damaging. But if left unchecked, free radicals can cause damage to the molecules inside our cells, such as DNA.

Devices that emit radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation, which includes cell phones, laptops, and Wi-Fi, have been shown to induce oxidative stress, and are associated with an increased level of ROS. It’s logical to assume that an increased level of ROS may cause increased sperm DNA fragmentation or other impaired semen parameters.

The bottom line: Electromagnetic radiation from cell phones may not be high-frequency enough to penetrate the brain or cause cancer, but there’s clear evidence that exposure may affect semen parameters and male fertility.

Bluetooth devices and male fertility

Using hands-free Bluetooth devices, such as headsets, that limit direct contact of cell phones with the body may be safer. Bluetooth devices also emit non-ionizing, low-level radiation. However, according to a 2019 study, Bluetooth headphones produce 10–400 times less electromagnetic radiation than cell phones.

When it comes to male fertility, there’s to be insufficient research on the impact of Bluetooth devices. The highest risk of harm seems to come from keeping your cell phone in your pocket while you use your Bluetooth device.

What about Wi-Fi and male fertility?

Wi-Fi emits a similar level of radiation — around 2.4 GHz — to cell phones and other electronic devices. There is evidence that Wi-Fi usage is associated with lower sperm counts, compromised DNA integrity, and other adverse effects on male reproductive parameters.

A 2015 study reveals a correlation between increased internet usage and a decrease in sperm total motile sperm count and the progressive motile sperm count. Compared to wired internet usage, Wi-Fi had a more severe impact on male fertility.

A later 2019 review of 18 animal studies and 5 human studies found that radiation from Wi-Fi transmitters may affect sperm count, motility, and DNA integrity, but not sperm viability or morphology. This review also found that Wi-Fi exposure was associated with degenerative changes, reduced testosterone level, increased apoptotic cells, and DNA damage, attributed to a rise in testicular temperature and oxidative stress activity.

Other potential impacts of frequent phone/device use on male fertility

Frequent cell phone and wireless device use can have other, more indirect impacts on male fertility — from overheating the scrotum to disrupting the circadian rhythm. Here’s what the research says:

Using your device on your lap can warm your scrotum

Scrotal temperature is important for the optimal production of sperm. Ideally, the testicles sit around 93.2ºF; the scrotum hangs away from the body to help regulate this temperature.

Research shows that when a laptop sits directly on the lap over the scrotum, the testes can overheat and put sperm quality at risk. In a small 2010 study, researchers monitored the temperature of 29 subjects’ scrotums as they used laptops on their knees. Even with a lap pad under the computer, the subjects’ scrotums overheated.

As the 2019 review referenced above discovered, a rise in testicular temperature could lead to reduced testosterone levels, increased apoptotic cells, and DNA damage, which can all negatively impact sperm quality and fertility.

Blue light could disrupt circadian rhythm

Studies show that exposure to blue light, emitted from electronic screens, as well as bright light before bedtime may disrupt the circadian rhythm, the body’s internal process of regulating the sleep-wake cycle.

Chronic disruption of the circadian rhythm can contribute to psychiatric and neurodegenerative illness, as well as infertility, as a 2020 study suggests. When the circadian rhythm is disrupted, the release of sexual hormones is also disrupted, specifically the follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH) and luteinizing hormones (LH), which are necessary for testosterone production and sperm production in males.

Sedentary lifestyles are correlated with device use and poor fertility

With advances in technology and more immediate access to cell phones, computers, tablets and other devices, screen time is increasing, leading to less physical activity and more sedentary behavior. Studies have shown that sedentary behavior correlates with an increased risk for a variety of health complications, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes, as well as mental health conditions.

There are also implications for fertility. According to a 2013 study, men who watched TV for more than 20 hours a week had half the sperm count of men who watched very little TV. The same study revealed that men who exercised for 15 or more hours every week had sperm counts that were 73% higher than those who exercised for a short amount of time or not at all.

A 2016 study revealed that not only did a TV-watching, sedentary lifestyle result in a lower sperm count, but it was also associated with decreases in testosterone and luteinizing hormone.

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Preventing your cell phone from affecting your fertility

It’s unlikely that you’ll choose to live “off the grid” — mobile devices are well-integrated into our professional and social lives. However, there are small steps you can take to lessen the impact:

  • Reduce the total amount of time spent on your cell phone.
  • Use hands-free technology, such as Bluetooth headphones, when you talk on your mobile phone, to place more distance between the phone and your body.
  • Refrain from keeping your mobile phone in your pocket. If you’re not using it, set it away from you.
  • Don’t put other items in your pocket along with your phone. Research shows that radiation may intensify when there are metallic objects like coins or rings in your pockets along with your cell phone. 
  • Try not to use your cell phone or other screens before bedtime.
  • Limit your screen use to avoid a sedentary lifestyle, and aim to exercise at least 15 hours every week.

If you want to find out if your cell phone use is affecting your fertility, consider testing your sperm with an at-home testing kit from Legacy. These results will give you insights into your sperm count, sperm motility, sperm morphology, and other key factors of male fertility. 

Check your sperm health with an at-home semen analysis kit and explore our guide to sperm improvement for more resources.

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