Cell Phone Addiction is Changing Our Brains

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We may not even notice we’re doing it, but it has become a primary form of entertainment, information, and now addiction: the mobile device. The word “addiction” is derived from the Latin word, “addico,” which means “to devote or surrender to” or “enslaved by.” Today, it’s seen as a chronic disease that can actually change our brains’ functioning and structure. Without much awareness, we depend on our smart devices and act on that dependency compulsively.

For adolescents, it’s even more of an issue, with 94% of teens going online using a mobile device daily, and 24% of them going online “almost constantly.” According to 2015 Pew Research, 46% of smartphone owners said “they couldn’t live without” their devices. With the usage prevalence, some researchers even consider it to be one of the greatest addictions of the current century.

A team of South Korean researchers have found that kids who used the internet or messed with their phones compulsively experienced an increase in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, to the part of the brain involved in addiction. In other words, dopamine is part of the reward system of the brain, and rewarding behavior can lead to addiction. Dopamine also plays a role in learning and memory, so repeated exposure causes nerve cells to communicate in a way that associates liking something with wanting it, driving us to pursue it.

Behaviors of Cell Phone Addiction

Cell phone addiction can manifest itself in many behaviors, but it’s mostly a combination of some of these.

  • Checking phone in the middle of the night
  • Anxiety at not having the device with you–even if it’s not lost. Or, feeling a drug-like withdrawal
  • Checking phone as many as 900 times a day (addicted)–while the average person checks their phone 110 times a day
  • Sleep deprivation can be a symptom that affects school performance and increases irritability (61% of teens say cell phone use has negative impact on schoolwork)
  • Usage creates family arguments
  • Have less face-to-face interactions/conversations
  • Isolation from friends and family
  • Cell phone usage becomes a way to escape stress and reality
  • Constant use, even while doing other things, such as driving and walking (11 teens die every day texting while driving)
  • Experience something called “text neck,” which is chronic strain from looking down
  • Eye strain/blurred vision from focusing on blue light and small screen
  • Decreased neural connectivity, affecting emotional control
  • Experience phantom vibrations, which is when we feel a non-existent cell phone alert
  • There are co-occurring disorders, such as deepening depression with lack of human interaction and increase in anxiety when cell phone is not available
  • Sleeping with phone under pillow (90% of 18-29 year olds sleep with their smartphones)

Setting Smartphone Boundaries

In the end, if it interferes with quality of life, relationships, and career, it’s time to set some restrictions for your teens and/or re-evaluate your own dependence. First, create self-awareness about how much data you’re actually using and then restrict yourself or your children’s data usage. For your kids (and you), designate a time without cell phones or devices. We all need to be brought back down to earth; otherwise, we (especially younger ones) are only going to become dependent upon the dopamine released when using an electronic device. Our brains need fresh air and physical/motor activity for good mental health.

Reward this “tech time-out” with positive reinforcement, and ultimately, be a role model. Show your kids–and even your adult family and friends–that life is good when you put down the phone. Connecting with your surroundings and those around you is just as important as (if not more than) connecting with your friends across the country or reading up on the royal wedding.

Is this easy to do? No.

Is it doable? Yes.

Is it necessary? Absolutely.

SOURCES:

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