Smartphone and internet addiction can create imbalances in the brain chemistry of young people, according to a new study presented at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).
We are becoming increasingly dependent on our phones and other electronic devices. However, there is growing concern that young people in particular may be spending too much time in front of screens.
Hyung Suk Seo and his team from Korea University in Seoul used a magnetic imaging technique – known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) – to study the brains of 19 smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers.
The researchers measured levels of two important brain chemicals: a neurotransmitter in the brain that is involved in vision and motor control, as well as the regulation of various brain functions – known as GABA – and another neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited – called Glx.
Neurotransmitters are chemical 'messengers' that transmit signals across the gaps between neurons – or nerve cells – in the brain.
The team found that levels of GABA were significantly increased in the brains of the young people they studied. Having too much of this chemical can cause drowsiness and anxiety, among other unwanted side-effects.
Seo says that increased levels of GABA are linked to reduced functioning of the brain networks that deal with emotions and cognition. All the addicted teens displayed symptoms of depression, anxiety and insomnia.
However, the study did provide some good news. Following the initial brain exams, twelve of the addicted youth received nine weeks of cognitive behavioural therapy, modified from a program designed specifically for gaming addiction.
The brain exams were then repeated after the therapy course, with the findings showing that brain chemical levels had largely normalised in the brains of the teens.
Recent research in this area has also highlighted the potential dangers of smartphone addiction in young people.
A study published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science suggested that increased time spent in front of computers, mobile phones and other electronic devices has contributed to a surge in symptoms of depression and suicidal behaviours in young Americans, especially among girls.