If you spend your days chasing "likes" with your head buried in your smartphone, your brain structure might be subtly different from those who keep their tech use to a minimum.
Researchers from Heidelberg University in Germany have found that “smartphone addiction” is linked to lower amounts of gray matter in certain parts of the brain, including the insula and temporal cortex. People with dysfunctional smartphone use also showed reduced activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region implicated in a broad range of behaviors and cognitive processes.
The insula is a small region found deep within the brain that’s associated with self-awareness, interoception, pain processing, and addiction, while the temporal cortex is associated with auditory language and speech comprehension.
“Given their widespread use and increasing popularity, the present study questions the harmlessness of smartphones, at least in individuals that may be at increased risk for developing smartphone-related addictive behaviors,” write the researchers in the journal Addictive Behaviors.
For this study, the team carried out MRI brain scans on 22 people with “smartphone addiction” and 26 people without the condition. All participants were assessed using the Smartphone Addiction Scale developed in 2015. They were also all right-handed, between the ages of 18 and 30, and had no history of neurological diseases, severe medical conditions, or current mental disorders. The brain scans specifically looked to detect differences in gray matter volume in those with “smartphone addiction” and those without.
However, it’s unclear whether this is a matter of cause or correlation. For example, it’s either possible the changes in the brain arose because of the participants' smartphone use or the different gray matter volumes made them more predisposed to heavy smartphone use. The study authors also note that they "cannot fully rule out the possibility of other mental health conditions that may have an impact" on their findings.
“Smartphone addiction” is a controversial label with some researchers and clinicians preferring the terms problematic smartphone use or smartphone overuse. After all, it’s fair to say that many people in the 21st century use their smartphones for much of their work, play, and everyday life. The average person in the US spends around 5.4 hours a day on their phone, while millennials in the US spend up to 5.7 hours, according to one analysis by a smartphone provider. However, it’s tricky to pinpoint when this use becomes problematic.
Either way, an increasing mound of evidence is showing that smartphones and social media are undoubtedly having an effect on our behavior and our brains.