Smartphones can be used for just about anything — ordering dinner, checking the news, booking a cab — all through a quick swipe. Just ask Susan Walter, who mainly uses hers to snap pictures and check her social media.
“I am on my phone about every half-hour looking at social media apps,” says Walter, a restaurant server in suburban Cleveland. “I normally have it in my purse or in my pocket, so I know where it is at all times.”
Although she has never worried about misplacing her device, Walter says if she lost it, she wouldn’t be too upset. “I would, however, say I am addicted to my phone,” she says. “I do feel the need to check it often, even if it’s just scrolling through social media.”
Cell phone addiction has been on the rise, according to several surveys. And a new study has added some fuel to the fire, revealing that smartphone and internet addiction may be harmful to the mind.
Dialing in the results
The study, presented in late 2017 by the Radiological Society of North America, indicates cell phone addiction may negatively affect brain functioning.
Known as “nomophobia”, it is “a debilitating and irrational fear of being separated from your smartphone,” says Dr. Jay Jagannathan, a board-certified neurologist based in Detroit. “Many people refer to nomophobia by calling it cell phone addiction, as any parent with teenagers can attest. Nomophobia likely has a linear relationship with the growing functionality — and our over-reliance — on smartphones.”
Study researchers found that teen boys addicted to their smartphones had significantly higher levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid, a neuron-depressing neurotransmitter in the cortex.
“In normal test subjects, the results showed the opposite — regular levels of glutamate-glutamine, which is a neurotransmitter that energizes the signals within the brain,” Jagannathan says. “To break it down, cellphone addicts’ altered brain chemistry shows lowered levels of attention, focus and control. Their brains were shown to be much more susceptible to distraction and inattentiveness.”
The research shows who’s most likely to develop this phobia: young adults ages 17 to 24. “This is a growing area of medical study,” Jagannathan says. “Published results so far haven’t yet been peer-reviewed and have included small sample groups. For many of these young adults, they’ve never experienced a world without smartphones.”
Putting down the phone
Dr. Michael V. Genovese, chief medical adviser at Acadia Healthcare in the San Francisco Bay area, says for some people nomophobia can lead to anxiety, insomnia and isolation. In addition to altering brain function and slower GABA levels, he says, smartphone addiction can also cause text neck, poor posture and disruption of melatonin production.
Jagannathan says steps can and should be taken to fight this phobia, which include setting “parameters of use, tapering down the time we spend engaging with our smartphones and replacing screen time with normal activities, such as spending quality time with others.”
Genovese says to follow five general recommendations. “Turn off your cellphone at least an hour before bed,” he says. “Use a real alarm clock instead of your cellphone, as it will help you forget about it. Set certain times to check your phone. Establish phone-free zones. And engage in real human contact.”
Walter admits she wasn’t aware nomophobia existed. And although she frequently uses her smartphone, “I definitely don’t have that phobia,” she says. “I have actually been trying to use my phone less!”