British teenager Jenny Fry didn't kill herself because of a Wi-Fi allergy.

That British Teenager Didn’t Kill Herself Because of a “Wi-Fi Allergy”

That British Teenager Didn’t Kill Herself Because of a “Wi-Fi Allergy”

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Dec. 7 2015 3:25 PM

Depression Is Real. “Hypersensitivity to Wi-Fi” Isn’t.

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This device will not make you sick.

Image by Konstantin Faraktinov/Shutterstock

It’s difficult to talk about depression. It’s hard for me to acknowledge that I kept tearing up as I mapped out this article and harder still to admit that I spent hours paralyzed by dread instead of writing it. Loath to address those feelings, we’ll gesture to anything else, anything that lets us avoid the realities of our pains.

Here’s something easier to say: Scientific research indicates that there is no such thing as electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and no such thing as a Wi-Fi allergy. Despite that, some have begun to blame mobile phones, wireless routers, and their ilk for everything from fatigue to memory loss. A few of the allegedly afflicted have found refuge in radio quiet zones, while others rally against radio signal pollution in their everyday lives.

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Now, in one especially tragic case, two British parents are attributing the death of their daughter—who took her own life in June—to these technologies. Orac, a doctor who blogs about skepticism and medicine on Respectful Insolence, writes that most publications that have covered the story “more or less take at face value the [parents’ claims] that their daughter suffered from electrohypersensitivity (EHS).” As Orac goes on to show, these assertions are almost certainly baseless. What’s more, they may actually contribute to the problems they claim to confront by further eliding the fact of depression.

Evidence against EHS vastly outweighs the almost entirely anecdotal and subjective assertions of its existence. Orac cites one 2005 study that demonstrates this point plainly, concluding that supposedly “hypersensitive” subjects couldn’t identify the presence of electromagnetic fields under double-blind conditions. Analysis from 2015 likewise found that self-identified sensitives were only able to consistently report effects from electromagnetic fields when knew they had been exposed. In their abstract, the authors write, “These findings are consistent with a growing body of literature indicating there is no causal relationship between short-term exposure to EMFs and subjective well-being in members of the public whether or not they report perceived sensitivity to EMFs.”

Significantly, it’s not clear why or how electromagnetic fields could affect people in the first place. Orac points to a World Health Organization report whose authors observe that there is no “accepted biological mechanism to explain hypersensitivity.” Faith in electromagnetic hypersensitivity is the contemporary equivalent of belief in spectral possession, differing only in that the suggestion of scientific terminology lends it a patina of credibility.

Researchers have expended considerable energy dispelling that illusion, energy that could have been spent elsewhere. Summarizing decades of scientific inquiries, the WHO writes, “To date, no adverse health effects from low level, long-term exposure to radiofrequency or power frequency fields have been confirmed, but scientists are actively continuing to research this area.” As with the dogged myth that links vaccines to autism, the persistence of superstition, not actually existing data, inspires such ongoing studies.

If researchers feel obliged to keep debunking these claims, it may be because it’s even easier to talk about EHS as if it were real, and that ease makes it dangerous. When we chase technological ghosts, we avoid the real causes of depression, be they circumstantial or biological. A psychotherapist friend who works with adolescents told me that it’s important that parents speak openly and honestly about mental health issues with their children. By turning depression into a mere symptom of an imaginary—and hence untreatable—ailment, EHS advocates make those crucial conversations harder to have.

Two primary threads seem to inform belief in EHS. The first—at once the most understandable and the most tragic—is a desire for absolution. Those who’ve seen children or other loved ones suffer may find it simpler to attribute that pain to environmental or social causes than to accept their own involvement in it. Such thinking feeds into a more general discomfort with technology. Essentially reactionary, this attitude leads us to blame our problems on the mere presence of the present, freeing us from guilt but leaving us helpless.

That isn’t, of course, to say that technomodernity doesn’t create its own crises and concerns. Even if Wi-Fi networks aren’t making us sick, some of the things we access through them might be draging us down. YikYak, for example, could be contributing to our sadness, and, as I’ve argued before, Facebook’s culture of compulsory positivity may be limiting our ability to confront our sorrows. There are problems with technology, but the issue isn’t technology itself, and we do ourselves no favors by pretending it is. As with individual depression, we need to discuss our collective concerns clearly, honestly, and specifically, or we’ll only make them worse.

When we invent illnesses, we limit our ability to treat real ones. Wi-Fi allergies don’t kill, but our belief in them might. 

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.