TUESDAY, May 28 (HealthDay News) -- The news media and the mind
may have a powerful role in people's experience of so-called "Wi-Fi
syndrome," if a new study is correct.
Researchers found that when they showed people a news report on
the purported health risks of Wi-Fi, some of them suddenly
developed symptoms when they were later exposed to a Wi-Fi signal.
Except that "signal" wasn't real.
The findings, researchers say, point to the power of the media
and the power of the "nocebo effect" -- where your worries over ill
health effects actually make you feel sick. It's the negative
version of the storied placebo effect, which causes you to feel
better because you expect good things from a therapy.
"Our study represents the first to demonstrate that sensational
and one-sided media reports might be able to amplify the nocebo
effect in this particular form of environmental intolerance," said
lead researcher Michael Witthoft, with the psychology department at
Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, in Germany.
"Environmental intolerance" refers to symptoms that people
develop in reaction to chemicals or other exposures in their daily
surroundings. Witthoft's study zeroed in on one: electromagnetic
fields (EMFs) -- which include the radio waves given off by cell
phones and Wi-Fi networks.
There is little evidence that those fields pose a cancer risk,
or have other health effects. Still, some people report suffering
symptoms, like headaches, tingling sensations, nausea and
concentration problems, that they attribute to electromagnetic
Witthoft's team studied the phenomenon by recruiting 147 adults
and randomly assigning them to watch one of two BBC news reports:
one on the potential health effects of Wi-Fi, or another on the
security of Internet and cellphone data.
Afterward, volunteers sat in a room with a laptop, where they
believed they were being exposed to a Wi-Fi signal -- when, in
fact, they were not. Yet 54 percent of the study participants
reported suffering symptoms, like tingling and concentration
problems, that they blamed on the Wi-Fi exposure.
And people who had seen the scary news report were more
vulnerable, Witthoft said -- particularly if they were
anxiety-prone types to begin with, a trait the researchers assessed
with a standard questionnaire.
The findings, which recently appeared in the
Journal of Psychosomatic Research, highlight how the mind --
and the media -- influence how you feel, experts said.
"For the media, I think it is essential to present the available
scientific evidence in a balanced and cautious way," Witthoft
The particular report his team used was a notoriously one-sided
program that was seen by close to 5 million Britons when it aired
in 2007. It was later called "misleading" by the BBC's own
Editorial Complaints Unit.
It is "disturbing" that for some people in this study, just
seeing the report was enough to trigger symptoms, according to John
Kelley, an associate professor of psychology at Endicott College in
Kelley is also deputy director of Harvard Medical School's
Program in Placebo Studies, which was created about two years ago
specifically to research the placebo response.
"Unfortunately," Kelley said, "people's expectations can work in
the negative direction, as well as the positive."
He said it would be interesting to see whether a more balanced
news report on the issue of electromagnetic fields and health would
have produced the same results. But it's possible that wouldn't
make much difference, Kelley noted.
It may be that simply getting the information makes many people
more vigilant for symptoms -- especially the anxiety-prone.
"You start to pay more attention to your body and may notice
some things -- a headache, a dry mouth -- that you otherwise
wouldn't notice," Kelley said.
And it's not just a phenomenon of "gullible" people falling
victim to sensationalist media reports, he noted. Medical students
are famous for developing symptoms of the diseases they are
currently studying. "It happens to doctors, too," Kelley said.
Study author Witthoft recommended viewing health news with a
skeptical eye. "It appears essential to stay critical about any
kind of scientific, or pseudo-scientific, information in the
media," he said. "I would advise consumers not to jump to simple
conclusions prematurely, but to critically review several sources
Simply knowing that the things you hear and see can influence
actual physical experiences may be helpful -- and eye-opening -- to
many people, according to Kelley. "We don't like to believe that we
can be pushed to feel something we wouldn't otherwise feel," he
said. "But we can be."
Learn more about
effectsfrom Harvard's Program in Placebo Studies.