Smartphone addiction could be a problem for your brain

400Excessive use of smartphones creates an imbalance in the brain chemistry of teenagers and young adults, according to a study. A recent Pew Research Center study found that 46% of Americans said that they cannot live without their smartphones, Science Daily reports. More and more people are becoming dependent on their smartphones and other gadgets for information, news, communication, games and such.

"NO MObile PHOne phoBIA" is a 21st-century term for the fear of not being able to use your cell phone or other smart device. Cell phone addiction is on the rise, surveys show, and a new study released Thursday adds to a growing body of evidence that smartphone and internet addiction is harming our minds — literally.

Surveys by the Pew Research Center this year showed that 77 percent of Americans own smartphones, up from 35 percent in 2011. Ninety-five percent own a cell phone of some kind.

Millennials are the worst offenders, according to Pew. Fifty-nine percent of people between the ages of 18 and 33 reported texting while driving, compared with 50 percent of Gen Xers (age 34 to 45) and only 29 percent of baby boomers.

It's not just driving. A study of pedestrians in midtown Manhattan found that 42 percent of those who entered traffic during a "Don't Walk" signal were talking on a cell phone, wearing headphones or looking down at an electronic device. A 2013 study found a tenfold increase in injuries related to pedestrians using cell phones from 2005 to 2010.

Other health ramifications include text neck — that cramping, stabbing pain that comes after looking down at your phone too long — and poor posture, which can affect your spine, respiratory functions and even emotions. Researchers have also found that the blue light emitted from our cell phones and other internet devices can disrupt melatonin production and therefore our sleep.

The latest evidence comes from a small study presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America in Chicago. The study, which has not been peer-reviewed, indicates that cell phone addiction may affect brain functioning.

Researchers from Korea University in Seoul used brain imaging to study the brains of 19 teenage boys who were diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction. Compared with 19 teenagers who were not addicted, the brains of the addicted boys had significantly higher levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter in the cortex that inhibits neurons, than levels of glutamate-glutamine, a neurotransmitter that energizes brain signals.

"GABA slows down the neurons," explained Yildirim, who was not involved in the Korean study. "That results in poorer attention and control, which you don't want to have, because you want to stay focused. So that means you are more vulnerable to distractions."

"It's a very small study, so you have to take it with a grain of salt," said Stanford neuroradiologist Dr. Max Wintermark, an expert in neuroimaging who was also not connected with the research. "It's the first study that I read about internet addiction, but there are many studies that link alcohol, drug and other types of addiction to imbalances in various neurotransmitters in the brain."

Yildirim agreed that the preliminary findings were consistent with prior research. "We know that medium to heavy multitaskers, who engage in multiple forms of media simultaneously, tend to demonstrate smaller gray matter area in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the area of the brain responsible for top-down attention control," he said. "Altogether, this means that if you are too dependent on your smartphone, you are basically damaging your ability to be attentive."

Addicted teenagers in the study also had significantly higher scores in anxiety, depression and levels of insomnia and impulsivity, said Dr. Hyung Suk Seo, professor of neuroradiology at Korea University, who led the study.

The good news is that when 12 of the addicted teens were given nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, the levels of GABA to glutamate-glutamine normalized.

"This is a common finding in the literature," Yildirim said. "There are studies that have looked at how cognitive behavioral therapy can improve attention control and executive functioning."

One study of mindfulness training showed increased cognitive performance, and another showed neuroplastic changes in the anterior cingulate cortex, the same area of the brain damaged by smartphone addiction.

"To me, the most interesting aspect of the study is that they were able to see a correction of the imbalance after cognitive behavior therapy intervention," Wintermark said. "What I would like to see is more research on whether the symptoms of addiction are also corrected."


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