Are we addicted to our phones?


In the past decade we have seen an overwhelming surge in smartphone users. Daily smartphone usage is often excessive and it may have negative physiological and psychological effects on the user. The overuse of smartphones has increasingly been gaining scientific interest, as their excessive and problematic use resembles other addictive behaviors. Yet, the brain mechanisms that underly this “smartphone addiction” are not fully understood.

A recent study from the University of Heidelberg, Germany, investigated the neural activity of 42 individuals using functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) imaging. Half of the individuals that participated in the study used their smartphones excessively (and therefore were defined by the researchers as ‘smartphone addicts’), while the other half used their smartphones moderately (control group). Both groups were shown smartphones that were either switched off or on, while their brain was being scanned using fMRI. The fMRI allowed the researchers to see the individuals’ brain function and neural activity in real-time as they respond to either the switched- off or on phone. The fMRI detects the specific areas of the brain that function in response to the stimuli. The scans of the active brain areas of both the ‘addict’ and the control group were then analyzed and compared.

The study found significant differences between the two groups. ‘Smartphone addicts’ showed altered neural activity patterns in various regions of the brain; fMRI scans of ‘addicted’ individuals showed increased neural activation in the medial prefrontal cortex, as well as the occipital, temporal and anterior cingulate cortices. They also found that various areas were less active in the brains of the smartphone ‘addicts’ group, compared to the control group. These areas of increased neural activity have previously been associated with addiction disorders, namely substance-related or behavioral addictions. This suggests that the areas of increased and decreased neural activity in the brains of smartphone ‘addicts’ show a similar pattern to that of other well-known addictions.

This study is first of its kind and despite having a relatively small population size, it shows promising results and suggests that there are similarities in brain function between other addictive disorders and the excessive use of a smartphone. While further studies are required to confirm excessive smartphone usage as a “true” addiction, we are now beginning to understand the neural mechanisms of smartphone addiction that may affect a large proportion of the population.

Original source: Schmitgen, M. M., et al. (2020). “Neural correlates of cue reactivity in individuals with smartphone addiction.” Addictive Behaviors 108, 106422.

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