Smartphones—Seductively Addictive, Detrimental to Mental Health

Our favorite devices are leaving children with smaller brains and reduced cognitive abilities, research finds

Smartphone addiction is becoming rampant around the globe—our youth the most susceptible—though the problem is not exclusive to them. Social media screentime borders on being sacred to many—what would you give in exchange for keeping yours?
Smartphones—Seductively Addictive, Detrimental to Mental Health
Many people are addicted to smartphone usage, which can have a significant effect on mental health and general well-being. (shutterstock)
Ellen Wan

Smartphone addiction is becoming rampant around the globe. Our youth are the most susceptible, although the problem isn't exclusive to them. Social media screen time competes with our focus on loved ones, core life ambitions, and essential chores.

Worldwide, more than 6.6 billion people use smartphones for communication, internet browsing, or gaming. Increasing research reveals that compulsive use of smartphones can significantly affect physical and mental health, leading to depression, infertility, and delayed brain development. Experts suggest that the consequences of excessive smartphone usage might be more severe than anticipated.
Addiction is defined as a "pleasure-inducing behavior that, through repeated exposure, gradually leads to loss of control and further negative consequences." Some research suggests that smartphone addiction is similar to most addictive disorders. That smartphones are small, easy to operate, and portable makes the risk of addiction even more insidious and pervasive.

Effect of Smartphone Addiction on Mental Health

In 2019, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry surveyed 6,595 American teenagers. The study found that compared with those not using social media, those using it for 30 minutes to 3 hours per day had 1.89 times more risk of developing symptoms (including anxiety and depression). The risk increased to 2.47 times for 3 to 6 hours of daily usage and 2.83 times for more than 6 hours. The more time spent on social media, the stronger the feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

Although social media can also be accessed via computers, most people use social media through smartphone apps.

study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in July 2017 revealed that people who frequently check social media were 2.7 times more likely to develop depression than those who checked it the least. Those spending the most time on social media had a 1.7 times higher risk of developing depression than peers spending less time.
A recent study from Canada posited that social media addiction might be as destructive as other forms of addiction, such as gambling and medicine abuse.
Researchers surveyed 750 Canadians aged 16 to 30 and found that those who frequently accessed social media on their smartphones were willing to make various sacrifices to stay on social media.

About 40 percent were willing to give up caffeine, alcohol, and video games; 30 percent preferred not exercising, watching TV, or dining at their favorite restaurant for a year; nearly 10 percent would accept infertility or give up a year of life; 5 percent and 3 percent were willing to lose 5 or 10 years of life, respectively; fewer than 5 percent were willing to contract sexually transmitted diseases or life-threatening conditions such as cancer; and 10 percent to 15 percent were ready to gain 15 pounds, shave their heads, give up driving, stop traveling, or live without air conditioning rather than quit social media.

Additionally, the research showed that people with higher levels of smartphone addiction had decreased cognitive abilities, visual and auditory reactions, and self-control. They scored lower on overall happiness and higher on fear of making mistakes and procrastination.

Effects of Smartphone Addiction on Children's Brains

In April this year, data published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) showed that 90 percent of children spend at least 1 hour per week on screens, with an increase in the number of children spending more than 20 hours per week. While the proportion of 5- to 14-year-olds using screens remained at 90 percent, the time spent increased compared with 2017–2018.

Michelle Ducat, the head of Education and Training Statistics at the ABS, stated that 40 percent of children spend 10 to 19 hours on screens, but the percentage of children using screens for more than 20 hours per week has increased from 16 percent to 24 percent.

Longitudinal analyses conducted over several years revealed a concerning trend—a higher frequency of internet use appears to be linked to a decrease in verbal intelligence and a reduced increase in regional gray and white matter volume in growing children across widespread areas of the brain.

The regions affected encompass areas intricately tied to various cognitive functions. These include regions associated with language processing, attention, executive functions, emotion regulation, and reward perception.

In summation, the findings suggest a direct or indirect correlation between frequent internet usage and the decline of verbal intelligence. Moreover, this pattern seems to extend to the development of less gray matter volume in multiple brain areas during later stages. Research from Japan linked students using smartphones for three years since the sixth grade to significantly reduced brain development during that time.
Dr. Ryuta Kawashima, a professor at the Institute of Development, Aging, and Cancer at Tohoku University, conducted research involving more than 70,000 Japanese primary and secondary school students that revealed that longer smartphone usage correlated with greater academic decline.
Dr. Kawashima explained in his Japanese-language book "Online Brain: A dangerous problem revealed from an emergency experiment at Tohoku University" that face-to-face communication stimulates the brain in various ways, leading to active functioning. On the other hand, online communication offers limited brain stimulation, activating only parts of the brain. He stressed that the negative effects of smartphones cannot be overlooked.

Overcoming Dependency on Smartphones

Dr. Kawashima advises students to distance themselves from smartphones while studying and limit daily smartphone usage to one hour or less.

The Taiwan Ministry of Health and Welfare's Department of Mental Health suggests two approaches to treating internet addiction based on its causes. One involves psychological therapy to help those with internet addiction to understand themselves, explore identity, effect change, and ultimately improve internet addiction. The other involves medical intervention, as addicts often have other mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Treating these related disorders can help alleviate internet addiction.

Dr. Kuen-Hong Wu, director of the Addiction Psychiatry Department of the Ministry of Health and Welfare-affiliated Taoyuan Psychiatric Center in Taiwan, suggests simple methods to address addiction. These include engaging in activities of interest during leisure time, using apps to control usage, turning off smart devices before sleep, gradually reducing screen time, planning regular breaks, turning off notifications, and reducing dependence on technology.