Smartphone addiction may shrink key areas of your brain in a similar way to drugs
- Smartphone addiction is linked to changes in key areas of your brain, similar to drug addiction, according to a first-of-its-kind study.
- While the term "smartphone addiction" is debated in the scientific community, it generally describes feelings and behaviours like being unable to concentrate due to smartphone use and feeling impatient when you're not holding your device.
- While past research has shown that people can have addictive behaviours around their smartphone use, the researchers say this is the first to show physical signs of addiction in the brain.
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Being glued to your iPhone and feeling naked without it is a lot more socially acceptable than experiencing the same pull to cocaine, but new research suggests addiction to both devices and substances have a similarly detrimental effect on key parts of the brain.
The study, out of several universities and research centers in Europe, compared 22 18- to 30-year-olds who met criteria for smartphone addiction to 26 people who did not. Using MRIs, the researchers looked at the size and activity levels of certain brain regions.
They found that those who were considered smartphone addicts had lower gray matter volume - a measure of brain cells - in several areas, including the left anterior insula, which has been "robustly associated" to substance addictions, the researchers write.
The team also found the more highly people scored on a scale measuring smartphone addiction, the less activity and volume they had in the right anterior cingulate cortex, a brain area associated with empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision-making that's also affected in other types of addiction.
The findings, the researchers say, is the first to suggest being too attached to your phone doesn't simply manifest in how you act, but it also physically alters your brain.
While the study was small and did not prove cause and effect, so more research is needed, the researchers said that its results challenge "assumptions towards the harmlessness of smartphones, at least in individuals that may be at increased risk for developing addictive behaviours."
Excessive smartphone use has been linked to a host of health consequences
Scientists don't all agree on the term smartphone addiction, with some saying it undermines the physical consequences of other types of addiction and others saying it wrongly blames the device when the real culprit is the app or the internet.
But the research is clear that "excessive and psychosocially dysfunctional smartphone use" - typically measured by strongly agreeing to statements like "I have a hard time concentrating in class, while doing assignments, or while working due to smartphone use" and "I feel impatient and fretful when I am not holding my smartphone" - can look a lot like other types of addiction, and have serious negative physical and mental health consequences.
Excessive smartphone use has been linked to everything from "text neck syndrome" and fatal car accidents to sleep problems and even a potentially increased cancer risk.
And eventually, the new research suggests, experts may be adding decreased brain volume and activity to the list, and treating it like an addiction.
"I always say to people, when you're giving your kid a tablet or a phone, you're really giving them a bottle of wine or a gram of coke," Harley Street rehab clinic specialist Mandy Saligari said at a 2017 education conference in London following news that kids as young as 12 are seeking rehab for their device use.
"Why," she asked, "do we pay so much less attention to those things than we do to drugs and alcohol when they work on the same brain impulses?"
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