Just a generation ago, few would have predicted that by 2017, the world would be full of people staring zombie-like at flickering screens they hold in their hands, mostly unaware of what’s happening around them. This is a fact of our daily lives, but concerns have risen in recent years as to what effects these devices are having on our society. We’ve already seen that more people are dying from distracted driving (even walking), and while smartphones have their good points, no one really knows how they are changing us.
Since smartphones first hit the marketplace more than 25 years ago, humans have been unwittingly part of a vast, uncontrolled experiment, and science is just now beginning to discover that our brains are being rewired in unexpected ways as we use these devices. While “addiction” is a clinical term, many people believe we are becoming addicted to smartphones to a degree few thought possible.
In a recent Pew study, nearly half of Americans said they couldn’t live without their smartphones. A Common Sense Media study last year found that more than 80 percent of teens feel the need to check their phones at least hourly, and nearly three-fourths of them felt compelled to immediately respond to text messages and social media notifications. A famous 2014 study concluded that many teens would rather lose their pinky finger than their phone. The fear of losing one’s phone even has a name: “nomophobia”.
So, why is this happening? Scientists have long suspected that it has to do with the brain’s reward centers and the natural chemicals that help us feel good when we experience pleasure. While most studies to date have relied on anecdotal evidence, or have looked at self-reported behavior, a recent South Korean study was different because researchers used advanced MRI techniques to look at the brains of teenagers as they used smartphones. Teens who described themselves as “addicted” to their phones were found to have higher levels of depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity, noted the study’s authors.
Probing further, the researchers found high levels of a brain chemical called GABA in the addicted teens, and the ratio of GABA to another chemical called glutamate seems to point toward chemical changes in teenage brains. While it’s just preliminary research, Dr. Hyung Suk Seo, the physician who conducted the study, notes that it could help scientists figure out just how device addiction can alter the brain.
“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,” Seo noted.
While this is one of the first conclusive studies to indicate that device use is actually changing the way our brains operate, there’s a lot of research ahead. But despite this disturbing news, Seo noted there is cause for optimism; levels of the brain chemicals seemed to decrease after cognitive behavioral therapy.
It’s pretty clear smartphones are here to stay, in some form or other. But with so much at stake, perhaps it’s time we all stepped back and gave some serious thought to whether these devices (and the people behind the curtain) are serving us, or whether it’s just the opposite.