What your smartphone addiction is doing to your brain

Source: Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

The social consequences of smartphones are well-documented. Our peers are too distracted to look up from their devices, to engage in conversation or read outside of their Facebook news feeds. But the impact of mobile technology goes far beyond interpersonal relationships — smartphones can potentially have damaging, physiological effects on your brain function. Smartphone addiction is becoming an increasingly alarming trend scientists are trying to understand. 

There are roadblocks to grasping the neurological impact of smartphones. Despite our attachment to them, smartphones remain a relatively new technology — one that is constantly evolving. This novelty makes studying the influence of smartphones challenging, but researchers are beginning to piece together the bigger picture. 

Behavioral smartphone addiction could have a neurological impact

Perhaps the most prominent academic look into the phenomenon is from James Roberts, a professor of marketing at Baylor University specializing in the "dark side" of consumer behavior. In 2014, he and several colleagues published a paper called "The invisible addiction: Cell-phone activities and addiction among male and female college students." The findings revealed the legitimacy of the term "smartphone addiction," which can have significant effects on a student's academic performance. 

People gaze at smartphones on a crowded train.
Source: 
Ahn Young-joon/AP

"An increasing reliance on cell-phones among young adults and college students may signal the evolution of cell-phone use from a habit to an addiction," the paper reads. "Any entity that can produce a pleasurable sensation has the potential of becoming addictive."

"Any oft repeated behavior that triggers 'specific reward effects through biochemical processes in the body do have an addictive potential,'" the paper continues. 

The key word is "biochemical," as its implications signal a transition from psychological behavioral addiction to a neurological detriments. One of the studies Roberts cites in his paper addresses that framework further. From 2011's "When Everyday Consumption Behaviours Morph Into Addictive Consumptive Behaviours":

Likewise, a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland's International Center for Media and the Public Agenda, found that people who were asked to stay away from emails, text messages, Facebook, and Twitter updates for 24 hours developed withdrawal symptoms typically seen in smokers attempting to give up smoking. Indeed, emerging research suggests that the same neural circuitry in the brain is involved in response to rewards obtained from seemingly benign repetitive behaviours such as exercising to more problematic behaviours such as gambling and substance abuse.

This research suggests the applications most commonly utilized on smartphones — social media, email and text messaging — can employ the same biological neural networks activated in physical addictions like substance abuse. 

Smartphone over-reliance could imply lazy thinking 

Not only can smartphones theoretically affect brain function, but their use can indicate an individual's propensity for analytical thinking. In a study from the University of Waterloo published in the scientific journal Computers in Human Behavior, researchers found a link between excessive smartphone use and lowered intelligence. Those who rely on intuitive thinking are more likely to use a smartphone's search engine for answers. Analytical thinkers use a device's web browser far less and demonstrate stronger cognitive skills and reasoning. 

Indeed, emerging research suggests that the same neural circuitry in the brain is involved in response to rewards obtained from seemingly benign repetitive behaviours .

"Intelligence is discretionary — people have to deliberately engage their intelligence to solve problems," Gordon Pennycook, co-lead author of the study and current postdoctoral fellow at Yale University, told Mic

Think of the brain as a car. You have a Ferrari — and that's like having a very smart, computationally advanced brain — but the gas pedal determines whether or you actually use it or not. If my grandmother had a Ferrari, it would not — practically speaking — be a very fast car, because she would never push the pedal that much. You can be very intelligent and also not exercise its intelligence.

"One thing the smartphone might do is make it easier for us to not exercise our brain," Pennycook said. "It doesn't mean that we're making the car faster or slower, it just means we're not using it to the maximal capacity."

Pennycook maintains the analysis remains speculative for now, but he is wary of the smartphone's ability to impact memory and cognitive power. "When writing was invented, Socrates said that it was going to be the end of memory because people could write things down — they didn't have to remember anymore," he explained. "There's always going to be a push-back against technology."

"Smartphones are really a different thing, though, because they basically are an external memory source," Pennycook continued. "It does seem like there's something really important there but, unfortunately, science doesn't know what exactly it is yet."

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Aric Suber-Jenkins

Aric is a writer covering technology. His work has appeared in Newsweek, Maxim and Brooklyn Magazine. He is based in New York and can be reached at aric@mic.com.

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