The 16-year-old died after reportedly listening to music while his phone was charging.

By Amanda MacMillan
December 11, 2018

A teenager in Malaysia was electrocuted and died earlier this month, and news reports suggest that using his phone while it was charging may be to blame. According to the New Straits Times, the 16-year-old’s mother discovered the boy lying on the floor last Monday, unresponsive and cold to the touch.

“Checks showed no sign of bruises or injuries,” district police chief Deputy Superintendent Anuar Bakri Abdul Salam told the news organization. “However, there was bleeding in the boy's left ear.” It is believed that the boy had been using headphones plugged into a smartphone, which was plugged into an electrical outlet.

Now, there’s a lot that’s still unknown about this story: For starters, it’s unclear what the make and model of the phone, the charging device, or the headphones were in this case.

We also have no way of knowing whether the electrical wiring in the victim’s house—or in the phone or charging cable—was faulty in any way. (Yahoo News Australia reports that the teen’s brother “also said he felt a small electric shock when he touched the cable.”)

But the story is making headlines, and Yahoo reports that photos of the boy have been spreading online “as a warning” to other cell phone users. The news site published a close-up photo of an earbud with blood in the background—presumably of the victim, but the source of the picture isn’t clear.

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Uncertainties aside, though, what we really want to know is this: Is it safe to use your phone—and plug in headphones—while it’s charging?

The answer, like everything else around this topic, is a little murky. In response to an email from Health, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) did not provide any guidance specifically about using cell phones while charging. But the organization did point to some general guidelines for electrical safety, including that “consumers should be present when products with batteries are charging,” and that they should “charge products with batteries on a flat, dry surface.”

For people with newer iPhones (version 7 and later), it’s actually quite difficult to charge your device and plug in earbuds at the same time, since the charging cable and headphones share the single lightning port. But the fact that Apple sells an adapter for exactly this purpose—that allows you to “listen to Lightning Audio and power your iPhone simultaneously”—would suggest that it’s been tested and deemed safe. (Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

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As for phones that have a separate auxiliary jack for headphones, Health was unable to find any written warnings from manufacturers about listening to audio while also charging. Samsung, another popular brand of smartphones, says on its website that users can “make full use” of their phones and tablets while they charge, although it does recommend using the official charger that the device came with.

That seems to be the most common advice around questions like this: Use compatible chargers and batteries, the CPSC advises, and be wary of cheap knock-offs. (When a Chinese woman was electrocuted in 2013 by a plugged-in iPhone, it was revealed that she'd been using a third-party charger. Apple responded by offering replacement coupons for anyone using counterfeit cords or USB adapters.)

If you do use an off-brand charger, PCMag.com recommends, make sure it’s certified in some way to reduce the risk of electrical hazards. It’s also smart to throw away charging cables or extension cords that show fraying or exposed wires, to make sure plugs' prongs are seated fully in their outlets and not left exposed, and to keep plugged-in electronics away from water, advises Consumer Reports.

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Of course, if you want to play it really safe, you can always use wireless headphones or earbuds—which connect via Bluetooth—to listen to music or carry on phone conversations while you’re charging up. (That means you’ll have to make sure they’re charged, too, but that’s another story…)

While this case is pretty shocking, it’s not the first time a cell phone has electrocuted someone or caused another serious hazard. There have been cases of people dying when their plugged-in phones came in contact with water, phones that melted under people's pillows at night, and phones that spontaneously combusted on airplanes.

Then again, millions of us use our cell phones every single day—yes, sometimes while they’re charging—without incident. Which leads us to think that, as long as we’re following instructions and using phones (and chargers) as directed, we’re probably pretty safe from these freak accidents.

And one more thing: If we’re being totally honest, there are plenty of other issues we should be focusing on when it comes to health risks and cell phones—like how they can harm our posture, disrupt our sleep habits, and mess with our mental health, to name a few. These things aren’t nearly as dramatic as a phone catching fire or electrocuting an unsuspecting teenager, but they’re a lot more likely to affect us on a regular basis.

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