Friday 17 November 2023

How smartphone addiction affects brain function and mental health

 Smartphone addiction has now become a global issue, thanks to the popularity of social media platforms and mobile games. While smartphones can make life easier in many ways, excessive use of smartphones and similar devices has been linked to many health issues.

According to a recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior, problematic smartphone use can cause cognitive impairments, poor sleep quality and depression. The study authors noted that although problematic smartphone use generally correlates with screen time, high screen time alone does not necessarily cause adverse effects. Smartphone use only becomes problematic when it starts to interfere with daily life.

In an article published in EXCLI Journal, Sehar Shoukat from the California Institute of Behavioral Neurosciences and Psychology discussed the dangers of problematic smartphone use and smartphone addiction. He noted that whenever a habit, such as checking or being active on social media, turns into an obligation, it quickly becomes an addiction. This addiction can easily endanger one's well-being because of its negative influence on physical and psychological health.  

According to Shoukat, people who are "mobile addicted" are unable to cut back on their cell phone usage and often use their phones as a solution to boredom. They also get anxious or depressed when their phones are out of their reach. These negative feelings and attitude, coupled with a dependency on smartphones and other gadgets, could increase a person's risk of developing anxiety disorders and clinical depression.

"When cell phone use becomes an addiction, the behavior becomes stressful," said Shoukat, quoting a research on cell phone use and human behavior.

Negative effects of smartphone addiction on mental health

Several studies have explored the psychological effects of excessive smartphone usage and social media addiction. While social media platforms like Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) can be accessed using laptops or desktop computers, smartphone apps appear to be the most common gateways for social media users, especially young adults.

In a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers recruited 1,787 Americans aged 19 to 32 years to examine the link between social media use and perceived social isolation. They found that participants who spent the highest amount of time on social media felt more socially isolated than their counterparts who were less active online.

Individuals who frequently checked social media were also 2.7 times more likely to develop depression than those who did so less frequently. Those who spent the highest amount of time on social media had a 1.7 higher risk of depression, indicating that too much social interactions online could have a detrimental effect on mental health.

In a similar study from Canada, researchers recruited 750 young adults and asked them to complete a survey about their relationship with social media and the sacrifices they were willing to make to remain socially active online. Nearly half of the participants admitted to checking their socials more than nine times a day, while more than half reported spending over an hour on social media every day.

Not surprisingly, those addicted to social media were willing to make more compromises to maintain their online access than those who didn't care much about their socials. About 40 percent said they were willing to give up caffeine, alcohol and video games if it meant being able to stay active on social media. Almost 10 percent were prepared to give up a year of their life, while five percent were willing to trade off five years of their life. About three percent preferred losing 10 years of their life over quitting social media.

This study shows the alarming hold social media has on many young people and how social media/smartphone addiction could be just as dangerous and life-threatening as other forms of addiction. (Related: Mental health in the digital age: 7 Ways to control your smartphone use.)

Negative effects of smartphone addiction on brain health

Aside from having a negative impact on mental health, smartphone addiction can also influence the brain in an unfavorable way. Earlier studies have found that excessive use of the internet and modern devices can bring about alterations in your brain's neural architecture and function. For instance, regularly interacting with your phone's touchscreen has been found to trigger changes in the neural circuitry of cortical regions associated with sensory and motor processing of the hand and thumb.

Research also suggests that excessive internet usage has a detrimental effect on children's attention, with many educators noting that "today's digital technologies are creating an easily distracted generation." In a study published in PNAS, researchers investigated the sustained impact of media multi-tasking – a behavioral pattern that involves interacting with multiple inputs simultaneously – on cognitive function.

They found that despite the constant practice heavy media multi-tasking individuals have (i.e., responding to notifications and prompts and navigating various hyperlinks), they still performed worse on task-switching tests than individuals who spend less time on the internet. The researchers attributed this poor task-switching ability to an "increased susceptibility to distraction from irrelevant environmental stimuli."

Subsequent brain imaging studies have corroborated this theory. Heavy media multi-taking individuals tend to show greater activity in the right prefrontal regions of their brains, which are normally activated in response to distractor stimuli. This means that people who spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet require more effort to maintain their concentration on one thing and not give in to distracting stimuli.

Another seminal study, this time by Japanese researchers, also found that longer smartphone usage is associated with lower cognitive function and reduced volume in several areas of the brain. After following a large sample of children for years, the researchers observed a decrease in verbal intelligence among those who frequently used the internet. They also noted a reduced increase in regional gray and white matter volumes in brain areas associated with attention, emotion, executive functions, language processing and reward.

According to Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, one of the study authors, communicating on the internet using your phone or other devices does not offer the same amount of brain stimulation that face-to-face communication does. Talking to someone in person promotes active brain functioning whereas online communication activates only a few select parts of the brain.  

Because the human brain only finishes developing and maturing around the mid-to-late 20s, getting more active stimulation by spending less time on their phones or gadgets will benefit children not just mentally and academically, but also physically. Not getting addicted to social media will also help lower their risks of anxiety and depression and improve their well-being.

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