Parents concerned that their teenagers’ addiction to their smart phones might cause problems have some cause for worry, according to a newly released study by Korean researchers. The scientists concluded that too much time spent online can cause an imbalance in adolescents’ brain chemistry, potentially leading to problems like depression, anxiety, impulsivity and insomnia.
The research, presented recently at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA), was led by Hyung Suk Seo, M.D., a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea.
Seo and his team used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) imaging to measure the brain’s chemical composition in a group of 19 smartphone- and internet-addicted teenagers, including nine males and 10 females, average age 15.5 years old. They compared the results against a gender- and age-matched control group and found a significant difference.
To measure the severity of addiction, the research team used standardized internet and smartphone addiction tests. They questioned subjects to determine how much phone and internet use impacted their daily routines, social life, productivity, sleeping patterns, and feelings. The higher the score, the more severe the addiction.
Seo discovered that the addicted teenagers had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity.
The researchers then performed MRS exams on the addicted youth before and after they participated in a behavioral therapy program. Twelve of the 19 addicted youth received nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to overcome their addiction.
For comparison, a single MRS exam was performed on the control patients. The MRS exams measured 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.
The researchers explained that, “previous studies have found GABA to be involved in vision and motor control and the regulation of various brain functions, including anxiety.”
Compared to the healthy control-subjects, the smartphone- and internet-addicted youth (prior to therapy) showed significantly increased ratios of GABA-to-Glx in the anterior cingulate cortex.
Seo said the ratios of GABA-to-creatine and GABA-to-glutamate were closely correlated to clinical scales of internet and smartphone addictions, depression and anxiety. Having an over-supply GABA, the researchers said, can lead to a number of negative side effects, such as drowsiness and anxiety.
The scientists say more research is needed to determine whether experiencing anxiety and depression makes teens more prone to over-reliance on their web-connected devices, or whether the devices are causing the behavioral symptoms. It’s also worth noting that the study sample was relatively small, with only 19 test subjects and 19 controls.
Seo says “increased GABA in the anterior cingulate gyrus” of the brains of internet- and smartphone-addicted youth may be related to the “functional loss of integration and regulation of processing in the cognitive and emotional neural network.”
He also notes that “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.
The study results also indicated that cognitive behavioral therapy may be a way to reverse some of the effects of smartphone over-use. The researchers found that GABA-to-Glx ratios in the addicted subjects significantly decreased or normalized after the subjects participated in cognitive behavioral therapy.
Teenagers may be at the highest risk for smartphone addiction (compared to adults) because of their frequent use of phones and the internet, social scientists say. In 2015, a Pew Research Center poll found that 73 percent of U.S. adolescents have a smartphone or can gain access to one. Of those, 96 percent said they spend time online every day.
There is also concern that teenagers’ preference for interacting online may hamper their development of important social skills.
According to recent data from Apple, smartphone users check in compulsively, averaging around 80 times a day. (A 2013 Kleiner Perkins report estimated the number at 150 times a day.)