Kid’s Smartphone Addictions Cause Brain Chemistry Changes

Teenagers preoccupation with smartphones can prompt alterations in their brain chemistry similar to those triggered by addiction, a new study suggests. The results were presented at the 2017 meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).

Along with a growing concern that young people, in particular, may be spending too much time staring into their phones instead of interacting with others, come questions as to the immediate effects on the brain and the possible long-term consequences of such habits.

Another recent study found that how children use the devices, not how much time they spend on them, is the strongest predictor of emotional or social problems connected with screen addiction. This held true after researchers controlled for screen time.

Basic Life Requirement?

According to a recent Pew Research Center study, 46 percent of Americans say they could not live without their smartphones. While this sentiment is obviously an exaggeration, more and more are becoming increasingly dependent on smartphones and other portable electronic devices for news, information, games, and even the occasional phone call.

Hyung Suk Seo, M.D., professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, and team used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to investigate the brains of smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers. MRS is a type of MRI that measures the brain’s chemical composition.

The study recruited 19 young people (mean age 15.5, 9 males) diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction and 19 gender- and age-matched healthy controls. Twelve of the addicted youth received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, modified from a cognitive therapy program for gaming addiction, as part of the study.

The researchers performed MRS exams on the addicted youth prior to and following behavioral therapy and a single MRS study on the control patients to measure levels of gamma aminobutyric acid, or GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that inhibits or slows down brain signals, and glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes neurons to become more electrically excited.

Previous studies have found GABA to be involved in vision and motor control and the regulation of various brain functions, including anxiety.

Drowsiness And Anxiety

The results of the magnetic resonance spectroscopy showed that, compared to the healthy controls, the ratio of GABA to Glx was significantly increased in the anterior cingulate cortex of smartphone- and internet-addicted youth prior to therapy.

Dr. Seo said the ratios of GABA to creatine and GABA to glutamate were significantly correlated to clinical scales of internet and smartphone addictions, depression and anxiety.

Having too much GABA can result in a number of side effects, including drowsiness and anxiety. The good news is GABA to Glx ratios in the addicted youth significantly decreased or normalized after cognitive behavioral therapy.

“The increased GABA levels and disrupted balance between GABA and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions,”

Dr. Seo said. More study is needed to understand the clinical implications of the findings.

Some of the warning signs of screen addiction include: if screen time interferes with daily activities, causes conflict for the child or in the family, or is the only activity that brings the child joy.

Lead author Sarah Domoff, who researched the subject while a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development, said:

“Typically, researchers and clinicians quantify or consider the amount of screen time as of paramount importance in determining what is normal or not normal or healthy or unhealthy. Our study has demonstrated that there is more to it than number of hours. What matters most is whether screen use causes problems in other areas of life or has become an all-consuming activity.”

Kids who use media in unhealthy ways have problems with relationships, conduct and other emotional symptoms, Domoff said. The study didn’t examine whether the emotional and behavior problems or the media addiction came first.

Domoff, S. E., Harrison, K., Gearhardt, A. N., Gentile, D. A., Lumeng, J. C., & Miller, A. L.
Development and Validation of the Problematic Media Use Measure: A Parent Report Measure of Screen Media “Addiction” in Children
Psychology of Popular Media Culture http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000163

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