Brain-shrinking, chemical imbalances, and the dreaded blue light. How is our love affair with smartphones affecting us?

At first, I thought “I’m not a smartphone addict.”

Then, my train of thought was interrupted by a notification. My best friend updated her Instagram story. Her dog is so cute! Time to scroll through #dogsofinstagram.

Power nap.

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Anyway, I guess I am a smartphone addict.

In my defense, there are a lot more interesting things to look at on my phone than just dogs! If I wanted to see it, I could instantly summon the world’s most beautiful sunset. Next, I could easily find out what my favorite kind of bread says about my personality.

With recent developments in smartphone AI, like Face ID, soon my phone will know what to show me without me searching for it.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that almost 50% of Americans confessed to not being able to live without their smartphones. Are these people just being dramatic? 

50% of Americans claim not to be able to live without their smartphonesClick To Tweet

When I think about it, I do depend on my phone an awful lot. Google maps has completely replaced the pathfinding connections in my brain.

My parents still manage a checkbook. Ha! My phone allows me to check my bank balance. Why would I keep my own numbers?

Also, miraculously, I can say goodnight to my sister from across the country every single night.

Come to think of it, my smartphone is an extension of my hand these days. I even sleep with it under my pillow despite horror stories of radiation and batteries exploding.

I’ve tried reverting to a nineties brick-like phone, I’ve tried digital diets, I’ve tried deleting my favorite apps. I’ve also tried downloading a new app, aimed at phone addicts like myself. 

It monitored the time I spent on my phone and what I ended up doing. One day, when the real world must have seemed particularly boring, I spent six hours on my phone.

What did I do in those six hours? Absolutely nothing.

The results were so shocking that I deleted the app. Like the sad addicts I hadn’t understood on shows like The Wire, I was unable to face the truth. When smartphones are interfering with sleep and preventing face to face interaction, they become a serious problem.

Can We Really Blame Dopamine for Phone Addiction?

It isn’t that cat memes are funnier than the friend sitting beside us. It’s not that the insta-worthy avocado toast is more delicious than the food in front of us.

To be honest, a lot of what I spend my time reading and looking at on my phone is brain-meltingly boring. So why are we so addicted?

The neurochemistry behind smartphone addiction has been pinned down to dopamine. As humans, we crave attention and validation. Humans simply want to be heard and valued. Notifications, emails, and text messages feed this need.

When you put a piece of yourself out there and someone ‘likes’ it, they are appreciating you. Your selfie, insight, and opinion can be validated in a systematic way. So ‘likes’, comments, shares and most importantly notifications have become a new measure of self-worth.

Popular media likes to offer simple explanations to complex issues. The irresistible ping, beep, or buzz of a notification equals a dopamine hit. However, dopamine doesn’t deserve all the blame.

Dopamine has often been dubbed as the neurotransmitter that provides us with pleasure and reward. To an extent, this is true. Yet, recent studies have shown that dopamine would be better described as the seeker.

Dopamine is what makes us seek out what we desire. When we find what we think will satisfy us, dopamine sends a notification to the opioid system and is put on pause. The opioid system takes over and makes us feel pleasure. In other words, while dopamine wants, opioids likes.

When you get a notification, you get a dopamine hit. What could it be? A message from your secret crush? Your hero retweeting your intelligently crafted tweet? You can hardly bear the anticipation!

When you open it and see that it is nothing but an invitation to your high school lab partner’s cat’s wedding, your opioids are unsatisfied.

cat wedding
Prilutskiy | Shutterstock.com

As a result, you come crashing down. Then, you’re right back on that infinite dopamine loop–always seeking more. You’re always hoping that someday reality will live up to dopamine’s expectations.

Sharon Begley, author of ‘Can’t Just Stop’ explains this compulsive behavior:  “Once you get a taste of the pleasure that awaits you, your reward-expectation circuitry lights up like winning a slot machine”.

This is what makes it so hard to stop checking e-mails, twitter, notifications, refreshing and scrolling.

Smartphones and social media just happen to be perfectly formulated to stimulate dopamine. This is not only because of their unpredictability but also because of the small bite-size snippets of information we receive. Tweets serve as the perfect example. 140 words (less so for 280 words) or less is the ideal recipe for dopamine to be stimulated but left wanting more and more and more.

In addition, dopamine is also a much stronger neurotransmitter than its accomplice, the opioid system. In short, you seek more than you are satisfied. Dopamine won’t stop seeking even when you get what you desire. This is thanks to evolution and survival instincts.

Research has shown that lab rats without dopamine could function, run and play and do what rats do. However, these dopamine deprived rats ended up starving to death despite having food right beside them. Without dopamine, there was no anticipation of reward, and so no desire to eat the food.

So, if you are addicted to your phone, you’re not weak-willed. Instead, you have stronger survival instincts and more determination to get what you want. Or at least, that’s what I’m going to assume.

Blue Light is Stealing Your Sleep

Sleep is not only a time when the body rests, restores, and strengthens but is also a critical time when the brain processes information. It also helps us solidify memories.

All of the information we take in throughout the day needs to be processed and stored at night. A process called “consolidation” takes place, transferring short-term memory to long-term. We also need adequate sleep to retain information, perform better on memory tasks, and synthesize hormones for the next day.

As it is a vital time for brain growth and development, young people need more sleep. Lack of sleep can lead to irritability and lack of focus, but it can also put you at higher risk to diseases like diabetes, obesity, and depression.

The fact that teenagers need more sleep but are also the ones who use their phones more, is a lethal combination. A recent study surveyed 1,101 Australian adolescents aged between 13 and 16 and found that poor-quality sleep is associated with late-night phone use. This was also connected to a decline in mental health, self-esteem, and coping ability.

The culprit could be the type of light our smartphones emit. Sleeplessness is exasperated by exposure to blue light. This tricks our circadian rhythm or body clock into thinking it is still daytime, making us more alert. Naturally, humans were built to rise with the sun and sleep at nightfall. So, it is unsurprising that artificial blue light also suppresses the creation of melatonin. This hormone triggers drowsiness and without it, we miss our cue to fall asleep. So, when we use our smartphones late at night, sleep duration is shortened and sleep quality declines.

Read More: Short Sleep, Short Life: 7 Reasons Sleep Is Fundamental to Your Health

Interestingly a study carried out by the University of Haifa and Assuta Sleep Clinic found that while blue-light from devices including smartphones, tablets, and laptops hindered sleep, red-light did not affect sleep. Red-light is a warmer more natural nighttime light. Think of that cozy campfire glow that lulls us into hypnotic drowsiness. Some researchers have even claimed that red-light stimulates the production of melatonin.

The good news is there are now apps such as ‘Flux’ that you can download to filter your phones blue light to red. Apple devices also have the built-in ‘night-shift’ option which gradually changes the light your phone emits as the day goes on.

Also, you can get blue light filters added to your glasses lenses.

So, say a night-time smartphone user gets a blue light filter. Can they then browse until they ‘naturally’ pass out? Not exactly.

Light isn’t the Only Thing Affecting our Brains, Content is too

It’s no wonder levels of anxiety have skyrocketed. Status of Mind, a recent report from the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health, found that social media use among adolescents is linked to increased rates of anxiety, depression, and poor sleep.

Growing up, insecurity is heightened and it’s difficult not to compare yourself to others.

Before, we would compare how we looked and our achievements to our classmates, siblings, and perhaps our friends across the street. Now, teenagers are comparing themselves to basically the whole world, thanks to social media.

It’s not just the sheer volume of people that adolescents have to manage. What is even more dangerous is that the online version of ourselves is usually highly edited and carefully curated.

We try to showcase all the good things and not mention the bad. It’s so difficult to remember that these online images don’t come close to being realistic.

Social media makes us constantly scrutinize ourselves and be quick to judge each other. The above study claims that young people have a “compare and despair” response to constantly seeing how much more their friends are doing.

Evidence on social media of more holidays, more party invites, and bigger friendship circles lead to feelings of not being good enough, isolation, and loneliness. The research team also highlighted that smartphones and social media use could be more addictive than alcohol or cigarettes, making FOMO inescapable.

However, this study and its findings has to be taken with a pinch of salt. It must be said that smartphones can also provide young people with access to support and information.

Our phones can teach us new languages and provide creative outlets. If used in the right way, we can make connections with like-minded people in a way that we simply couldn’t before. 

Time spent on smartphones should be limited. Still, I think what is equally important is teaching young people how to react to what they see online.

Being exposed to the broadcasted lives of others could be inspiring and motivate young people to do more and make impossible dreams seem possible. Instead of mindlessly reading articles about victoria’s secret model diets, we could be learning about The Theory of Everything, for example.

Screen Addiction Leads to Brain Chemical Imbalance

As we have seen, when it comes to the negative impact of phone addiction, young people are more vulnerable. A recent study led by Hyung Suk Seo, professor of neurology at Korea University, found that smartphone addiction can actually lead to a chemical imbalance in the brain.

First, a questionnaire was used to determine if the young person was suffering from smartphone addiction. This measured the extent to which screen time was affecting daily life.

Key questions were centered around how it affected face to face interaction, sleep patterns, productivity, and emotions. Nineteen teenagers who were addicted and a control group who were not underwent brain scans.

This pioneering study used magnetic resonance spectroscopy, a specialized type of MRI scan, to measure the brain’s chemical composition.

Two key neurotransmitters were analyzed. One was Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which slows down brain signaling. Excess amounts of GABA can have side effects that range from drowsiness to heightened anxiety.

The other was Glutamate-glutamine (Glux), which is an excitatory neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become electronically stimulated.

In a healthy brain, these two chemicals are found in a delicate ratio. However, in the phone addicts, an imbalance showed up in one particular area.

The Anterior Cingulate has been linked previously to addictive behavior and how we experience and process emotions. In a nutshell, the result of the experiment showed a correlation between excessive smartphone use and depression and anxiety.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. The good news is that the damage done by smartphone addiction can be reversed. The study also proved that after nine weeks of therapy which promoted self-control, recognizing emotions, and simply recognizing their behavior, the ratios normalized.

Is Your Smartphone Shrinking Your Brain?

Smartphone use can change social cognition, cause impaired attention, reduce motivation, increase impulsivity and hyperactivity. Even regular usage not classified as addiction can cause subtle damage to developing brains.

Multiple studies have shown that regular smartphone use can shrink the grey matter in the brain. Loss of tissue volume has been seen primarily in the area that processes information. For example, the frontal lobe, which governs impulse control, planning and motivation. The Striatum, which is connected to reward, and the Insula, which determines your capacity to develop empathy and compassion, are also significantly affected.

White matter has also shown to be compromised due to smartphone addiction. This affects communication within the brain. The links between cognitive and emotional centers are slowed down. This means that brain and body networks are short-circuited or become erratic.

Not only is this concerning in terms educational success but also could lead to increased violent behavior. In short, and my parents wouldn’t argue, smartphone addiction lessens the quality and depth of relationships.

Boredom Breeds Creativity

I’d like to consider my brain as fully-developed, but what about those who are still growing up?

My little cousin could use an iPad before she could talk. Whether this was because she is exceptionally talented or whether they are exceptionally user-friendly is beside the point.

What could this mean for the brain development of the younger generation?

Maybe the reason I think I’m so addicted is because I know what it was like before I had this shiny rectangular device attached to my hand. For her, and so many other young people, having a portal to the digital world at their fingertips is all they’ve ever known.

Can you remember the last time you were bored? I hope it’s not right now.

If you own a smartphone, there’s really no excuse for boredom. Nowadays, it’s the same for children. More and more parents turn to electronic devices to keep their little angels entertained at all times.

It has to be said that interactive apps and educational games can offer wonderful learning opportunities. However, the nature of these devices is causing children’s brains to be rewired to expect constant stimulation and instant gratification.

What we sometimes forget is that boredom is important. It’s the time when the mind is let wander and daydreaming occurs. Boredom breeds creativity. Boredom teaches young children how to entertain themselves. It forces them to use their imagination, problem-solving skills, and to think critically.

Being constantly in front of screens, even for educational purposes, could lead to shortened attention spans, depression and anxiety. Children need solitary time to think deeply about all the new concepts and emotions they are experiencing. Being constantly stimulated prevents this.

Excessive Screen-Time Also has a Negative Impact on Kid’s Abilities to Build Solid Relationships.

More time spent in front of a screen means less time interacting with friends in the ‘real world’.

This might seem obvious, but less face-to-face interaction makes it more difficult for children to pick up on social cues and develop meaningful relationships.

Yet, this problem isn’t just affecting children.

Joseph Grenny, the author of Crucial Conversations, claims that 89 percent of people say the intrusive or inappropriate use of technology has damaged their relationships. This staggering figure might make you reconsider checking your email at the dinner table.

Think about it, have you ignored the real-life human in front of you in favor of checking who viewed your Snapchat story? I know I have.

Maybe I’m Overreacting. How Bad can Smartphones Really be?

Maybe having no thumbprints from endlessly scrolling could work to my advantage if I ever decided to pursue a life of crime.

But, really, let us not forget that with any new form of media comes moral panic.

Television has yet to turn our eyes square and brains to mush.

Kindles haven’t made books obsolete.

To what extent is our brainpower and moral fiber really at risk? 

Like jam doughnuts and coffee, it’s best to consume everything in moderation. You can still have a healthy brain if your phone is used in a smart way. It doesn’t look like smartphones are going anywhere soon, so we need to learn how to use them safely.

It’s high time we became more mindful about the information we consume, how it makes us feel and know when we have had enough. These messages also need to be relayed to younger generations.

Next time you go to pick up your phone, think. Put it down, embrace boredom and your mind will surprise you.

How many times did you check your phone while reading this? 

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