Controversial Study Claims "Smartphone Addiction" Alters the Brain

But not all scientists agree.

Flickr / d_vdm

It’s an open secret that Silicon Valley exploits our tendency to seek the neurological rewards delivered by the likes, comments and mentions that pop up on our internet-connected devices. As such, smartphone use can certainly feel like it’s habit-forming. But a desire to engage with technology — and even what could be seen as compulsive use — is not the same thing as addiction, despite what a new study claiming that smartphone addiction changes our brains claims.

In the new paper, presented Thursday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America, a team of radiologists at Korea University report that smartphone addiction changes teenagers’ brains. Using brain imaging, they argue that smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers have imbalanced brain chemistry when compared to their peers who aren’t addicted to smartphones or the internet.

But scientists not involved with the study have some serious issues with their research. Perhaps the most important of these issues is the fact that “smartphone addiction” is not a scientifically established thing — at least not yet.

“Smartphone addiction is not a recognized mental health problem,” clinical psychologist Anthony Bean, Ph.D., tells Inverse. “There is no standardized format for determining addiction for phones, so it is unclear what they are talking about specifically. If there is not a standard or accepted view of it, past general consensus without any appropriate or identified markers, then it really is hard to say one is measuring addiction.”

Scientists say smartphone-addicted teens have chemical imbalances, but their evidence is thin.

Radiological Society of North America

In the study, the team led by Dr. Hyung Suk Seo used “standardized internet and smartphone addiction tests to measure the severity of internet addiction” in nine boys and 10 girls, according to a statement. Then, they used MRS, a brain imaging technique that can identify particular brain chemicals, to examine the participants’ brains before and after taking nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy to help their “addiction.”

Compared to a control group, the “smartphone addicts” had skewed levels of neurotransmitters in their brains. In particular, they had a higher ratio of GABA to Glx (glutamate‐glutamine), which are respectively responsible for slowing down brain signals and exciting neurons. An elevated ratio of GABA to Glx, the researchers concluded, can be associated with the self-reported symptoms of the “smartphone addict” teens, including depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity. After 12 of the teens participated in cognitive behavior therapy, the scientists report, their chemical imbalances appeared to even out to look more like the control group’s.

Are teens really addicted to smartphones? Maybe, but this study doesn't prove it.

Flickr / UnitedSoybeanBoard

While this study hints at evidence that “smartphone addiction,” whatever it is, changes the brain, its results are far from conclusive for various reasons. Chris Ferguson, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Stetson University, tells Inverse that the study is simply not robust enough. “My concerns are that it’s a pretty small study, and the findings look pretty marginal to me,” he says, noting that it only looked at 19 participants. Looking at the study’s measures of statistical significance — the p-value, or probability that the results could have been obtained by chance — it doesn’t suggest there’s any clear link between smartphone addiction and skewed neurotransmitters at all.

“The p-values are only barely below the p = .05 level for statistical significance, which in recent years we’ve come to understand actually have very high levels of false positive results,” says Ferguson.

Bean echoes this critique, and also notes that there’s no way to tell whether the cognitive behavioral therapy actually deserves credit for the test group’s improvement.

“Over the 9 weeks of treatment, one cannot say that CBT was the thing that changed anyone’s brain chemistry,” he says. “Many things can happen, deaths, graduations, moving from house to house, divorce.”

Scientists say kids are hooked on the internet. But let's step back and look at the evidence.

Flickr / msdonnalee

But ultimately, the big problem with this study is that it examines a condition that is arbitrarily defined. If psychologists don’t agree on whether the condition you’re treating even exists, then how can you prove that you’re treating it? Recently, a similar issue has arisen around video game addiction, which the World Health Organization and American Psychiatric Association want to recognize as a pathology, while vocal psychologists, including Bean and Ferguson, disagree.

It’s an ongoing debate, which makes for headlines that are both catchy and misleading: “Internet Addiction Creates Imbalance in the Brain,” “Smartphone addiction creates chemical imbalances in brain,” and “Smartphone addiction messes up brain chemistry” are just a few of the headlines that appeared on Thursday morning.

Maybe parents will send it to their teens, saying, See? I told you so! But the evidence doesn’t hold up at this point.

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