Using mobile phones and tablet devices could be making children hit puberty early, according to frightening new research out of Italy. The researchers, whose study was carried out on rats, discovered that mobile phones and tablet devices could trigger physical changes in the ovaries and might even be responsible for infertility.

The researchers say that this is happening because the devices emit blue light, which alters the body’s production of the hormone melatonin, and counsel that parents should not let their children use such devices in the evening before bed.

“Although not conclusive, we would advise that the use of blue light emitting devices should be minimized in pre-pubertal children, especially in the evening when exposure may have the most hormone-altering effects,” says lead author Dr. Aylin Kilinç Uğurlu from Ankara City Hospital in a media release.

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Mobile phones: causing early puberty in children?

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Screen time is well known to disrupt sleep in children and adults. It affects the body clock by inhibiting the evening rise in melatonin, an important hormone which prepares us for rest and sleep. Levels of melatonin are naturally higher before puberty, which delays its onset.

Puberty is a complex process that involves the interaction of several body systems and hormones, Dr. Uğurlu says. Several recent studies have reported early onset for girls, particularly during the pandemic.

The known link between blue light and reduced melatonin suggests increased screen time – a common problem during lockdowns – are playing a role in the reported increase, the study authors say.

The researchers’ findings have implications for explaining why children seem to be undergoing puberty earlier and earlier, something which has puzzled pediatricians for some time now.

Generally, girls begin puberty around the age of 11 and boys 12, but increasingly it appears that children are undergoing the change a year or more sooner than decades ago.

Some girls are even developing breasts at age six or seven. Two years ago, a global study found development of breasts in girls has crept forwards by about three months per decade since the 1970s. A variety of factors such as obesity, exposure to estrogenic chemicals and stress have been identified as the main causes. The new study, which was carried out on rats, suggests that blue-light exposure may also be to blame.

Dr. Uğurlu and colleagues divided immature 21-day-old lab animals into three groups of six, exposing them to a normal light cycle or either six or 12 hours of blue light.

The first signs of puberty occurred much earlier in the blue light group. The more blue light they were exposed to, the earlier the onset. The animals exposed to the most blue light had less melatonin and elevated levels of estradiol and luteinizing hormone (LH). Estradiol thickens the womb and breasts while LH brings on ovulation.

Furthermore, after half a day of blue light exposure, there were indications of cell damage and inflammation in the ovaries. The researchers plan to investigate this connection further, since it could have long-term impacts on reproductive health and fertility.

The findings, presented at the 60th annual meeting of the European Society for Pediatric Endocrinology, are likely to apply to humans.

Since these findings could have serious implications for childhood development and future fertility, Dr. Uğurlu believes further research is urgently needed.

“We have found that blue light exposure, sufficient to alter melatonin levels, is also able to alter reproductive hormone levels and cause earlier puberty onset in our rat model. In addition, the longer the exposure, the earlier the onset,” Dr. Uğurlu says.

The researchers want to assess if setting computers and phones to warmer “night mode” colors such as yellow dampens the effects observed.

“As this a rat study, we can’t be sure that these findings would be replicated in children but these data suggest that blue light exposure could be considered as a risk factor for earlier puberty onset,” the study author continues.

“Our study is the first to show the effects of BL exposure on puberty. In our study, we showed that exposure of BL and the duration of exposure lead to early puberty,” the researchers conclude.

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