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Written by Pete Stahl, M.D.
It’s hardly a secret that spending significant amounts of time on your phone can do a number on your health: Studies have already shown that extended screen time can cause eye strain, exacerbate anxiety and wreak havoc on sleep patterns. As if that weren’t enough, a new study seems to suggest that prolonged cell phone use might also be associated with reduced sperm count.
The study, performed by researchers from universities and health organizations in Switzerland, sounds very worrying at first glance: 2,886 young men from the general Swiss population were recruited to answer questions about their lifestyles and deliver semen samples for assessment. The respondents who used their phone more than 20 times per day had a 30% increased risk for lower sperm concentration and 21% increased risk for total sperm count to be below the World Health Organization’s reference values for fertile men.
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So does that mean your first New Year’s resolution should be getting a landline if you’re concerned about your fertility? Probably not.
We already know in the field that human sperm count appears to have fallen over the last several decades. And despite some concerning headlines about the findings, this new study doesn’t really shed a ton of light on possible reasons for the overall decline. One major reason for that gap in relevant clinical conclusions is that the decades-long decline in global sperm count actually isn’t all that significant when considering individual health outcomes.
It is an important trend to observe as we think about humanity overall, but there often isn’t much difference in the average semen quality across a population of fertile men and the average across a population of infertile men. Put differently, if one person has the average sperm quality and concentration from 50 years ago and another has the average sperm quality and concentration we see today, both of them would be expected to have pretty normal fertility.
To better contextualize the study, it’s important to understand the different factors that affect how male infertility is assessed. Generally, the parameters we measure when doing semen analysis fall into a few categories.
The first, which can be thought of as a numerical value, is sperm count. To get that value, we multiply two different variables: sperm concentration—the number of sperm per millimeter of semen—and semen volume, which is exactly what it sounds like.
The second category can be thought of as sperm quality, the visually identifiable characteristics that lab techs and doctors believed to be correlated with functional ability to find and fertilize an egg in the female reproductive tract. When we reference sperm quality, we’re often evaluating sperm motility, the percentage of sperm that are moving progressively, and sperm morphology, the percentage of sperm with a perfect shape.
A lot needs to happen for natural conception to occur, and it’s often not helpful to isolate any of these numbers without considering the full range of individual and environmental factors that shape a person’s health.
Similarly, trying to determine the factors leading to a global decline in sperm count is far from an exact science, and the study’s focus on cell phone usage might be obscuring more than it reveals.
A major reason for that is the simple fact of how much life has changed in the years since the study first began evaluating respondents. The average person now uses their phone far, far more than was common in 2005. But that’s not the only widely observed change in lifestyle.
There are so many confounding variables that might affect someone’s sexual health: People are, on average, leading more sedentary lives than they were in the mid-20th century. While it’s true that increased phone usage is often a consistent feature of sedentary lifestyles, there are many other associated factors that could also be affecting sperm quality. Consider, for example, how much more likely you are to be on your phone when you’re feeling depressed or skipping exercise. Common contributors to other adverse health outcomes, such as obesity, smoking and binge drinking can all decrease sperm quality.
For men who are concerned about their sperm quality or concentration, knowing that these factors all play into fertility might be a lot more helpful than just blindly trying to avoid cell phone usage, especially since the study found no correlation between keeping a phone in your pocket and having lower semen parameters.
There are a number of other things you can do to try improving fertility before heading into a doctor’s office, such as focusing on maintaining a nutritious diet, exercising, tending to your mental health and avoiding both binge drinking and smoking. There’s even data that suggests wearing boxers is better than tight underwear for maintaining proper testicular temperatures.
And of course, if you and a female partner have been having difficulty conceiving after about six months to a year, it’s really important to go see a doctor. Men are an important part of the reproductive equation—we cause or contribute to about half of all infertility cases, and being aware that we matter is a huge first step in addressing any concern. The best way to take action at that point is to see a urologist or get a semen analysis, which your doctor can order in-office or recommend an at-home kit.
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