Here's What Your Smartphone Is Doing To Your Brain


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

It's not an addiction, but it's a problem. BT Image/Shutterstock

Although most of you will probably admit that you couldn’t live without your smartphone, it’s not very clear whether it represents a genuine addiction or not. Research is hoping to determine this once and for all, but for now, it’s something that can at least be described as problematic.

In any case, new research led by Seoul’s Korea University suggests that an addiction to, or an overreliance on, the technology is creating an “imbalance” in the brain chemistry of teenagers.


Previewed at the annual gathering of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago, this small study looked at the brains of 38 teenagers, both male and female.

In this study, the participants were questioned as to just how addicted the teenagers were. Half of the subjects were perfectly healthy, whereas the others were said to have been suffering from smartphone and Internet addiction.

The location of the anterior cingulate gyrus. Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA 2.1 jp

Symptoms are not concrete at present, but they are thought to include a failure to resist the impulse to use a smartphone, an irritability when not allowed access, overly prolonged usage times, and potentially frequent smartphone use that negatively affects their work, social skills, or even health.

Those that got higher addiction scores were also far more likely to be depressed, anxious, impulsive, and/or insomniacs. Some of the worst afflicted were given nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy to try and wean them off smartphones.


Using magnetic resonance spectroscopy – a form of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that looks at the chemical composition of parts of the brain – the team of neuroradiologists looked at the subjects before and after their behavioral therapy was complete.

Two compounds were looked into: gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and glutamate-glutamine (Glx). The former is a neurotransmitter that inhibits signals between neurons, whereas the latter triggers electrical excitement in neurons. They are, roughly speaking, chemical rivals.

GABA’s inhibitory effects are, among other things, thought to help a person control their fear or anxiety impulses when their neurons are overexcited. Too much GABA, however, can induce anxiety, insomnia, and exhaustion.

The team found that there was far more GABA compared to Glx in the brains of those heavily addicted to smartphones, particularly in the anterior cingulate cortex, a segment that deals with impulse control, emotion, and attention. The higher the ratio, the more addicted to the Internet and smartphones the subjects appeared to be.


Fortunately, the GABA-Glx ratio became far more normal after the behavioral therapy was complete.

Correlation isn’t causation, of course, and it cannot be overstated that this study focused on an incredibly small population.

Again, most importantly, without even having a proper definition of what smartphone addiction is, it’s hard to say what exactly the team were measuring here – particularly without an accompanied, peer-reviewed study.

Is the condition real, or not? Without that starting point set in stone, it’s difficult to proceed. A review of the topic in 2016 concluded that “there is an almost indistinguishable or scantly differentiated use of the terms addiction, problematic use, and abuse in the literature.”


“While we have clearly shown that problematic cell-phone use is an emerging problem that is tightly linked to technological development, there is a lack of coherence and uniformity in the criteria for studying it that requires caution in accepting many of the conclusions indicated.”

At present, then, experts can’t be sure if it’s real or even how to properly define it. At the very least, this new study will shine a new spotlight on the subject and reignite the controversial debate.


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