Are 'smart' phones making us dumb?

A new study has found that smartphone addiction results in detrimental changes to the physical structure of the brain, including lower grey matter volume

The mobile phone or cell phone, as it was known previously, was seen as a marvel of technology when it went mainstream in the early to late 90s. Before that it was just an uber-cool gadget reserved for the elitists and company bosses.

A breakthrough portable communication device that allowed you to make phone calls and just a "little more" seemed like the best that technology could get. But over the course of time, the humble cell phone metamorphosed into a more capable device that could handle almost anything you threw at it. It had now become a 'smart'phone. Now, the situation is such that the term smartphone is almost synonymous with mobile phone. If it's a cell phone it's got to be a smartphone.

The "parasite" which we refuse to let go of

The rather unassuming smartphone has sort of taken over our lives. It has grown on us like a 'parasite', and that's exactly what a new study tends to suggest.

And as we grow more dependent on our humble little "companion" for composing that work email to spending hours playing games, we become addicted to it and it's become a "near impossible" task to even think of going without a smartphone for a day. But this addiction has some serious detrimental effects on our brain. Just as a parasite would derive nutrients from the tree which it latched to, rendering it lifeless eventually, the smartphone addiction of ours could be damaging our brain in a similar way.

MRI scans reveal detrimental effects of smartphone addiction

According to a new study, researchers have found that constant smartphone usage physically affects your brain the same way drug addiction would affect it.

Two women on their smartphones are seen outside a clothes retail shop on October 8, 2011 UltraSlo1/Flickr

The study conducted by several universities and research centres in Europe compared the MRI scans of 22 individuals in the age group of 18 to 30-year-old who met the criteria for smartphone addiction. The researchers took MRIs of 48 people in total, but of these 26 of them did not show signs of smartphone addiction.

Using the MRIs, the team made observations on the size and activity levels big certain areas of the brain and they found that those who were addicted to smartphones had lower grey matter volume in several areas of the brain as compare to those who didn't. One of these areas was the left anterior insula -- a region that has been "robustly associated" to substance addictions, according to the researchers.

Our brains are changing physically thanks to smartphones

Determining grey matter volume is a method of measuring brain cells, and the grey matter component of the central nervous system is responsible for controlling a person's emotions, speech, sight, hearing, memory and self-control. Any loss in the grey matter volume results in changes in the aforementioned functions.

However, the researchers say that the findings suggests that being too attached to your phones doesn't simply manifest in how you act, but also how it actually physically alters your brain. In fact, this correlates to an evolutionary trait which suggests that modern man developed a smaller, less prominent jaw as our predecessors and Neanderthals began eating cooked meat which required less force to chew. And just like this if we rely on smartphones for doing everything, our brains may in fact become smaller due to a lack of brain activity.

Smartphone addiction is similar to drug addiction

The team also found the higher people scored on a scale measuring smartphone addiction, the lower activity and volume they had in the right anterior cingulate cortex, an area of the brain that is associated with empathy, impulse control, emotion, and decision making. This region too is also found to be affected in drug addictions.

And while the study is too small to give out a more general consensus, it "questions the harmlessness of smartphones, at least in individuals that may be at increased risk for developing smartphone-related addictive behaviors."

Much ado about nothing?

Meanwhile, not all scientists agree in the term "smartphone addiction." Many of them suggest that it simply undermines the physical consequences of other types of addictions, while other say it wrongly blames the device when the real culprits are apps and the internet, which is also correct to some extent.

Galaxy S9
Seoul: This photo shows Samsung Electronics Co.'s Galaxy S9 smartphone at an outlet in Seoul on Feb. 28, 2018.(Yonhap/IANS) Yonhap/IANS

However, excessive and psycho-socially dysfunctional smartphone use measured by statements such as "I feel insecure and fretful when I'm not having my smartphone," does make it look like other types of addictions. In fact excessive smartphone use has often been linked to fatal car accidents and insomnia in many individuals and even a potentially increased cancer risk. So, that's something we should consider.

Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing

According to a RescueTime survey, more than 24 percent American kids in the age group 8 to 12 and 67 percent US teenagers have their own smartphones, with the younger teens using their phones an average six hours a day for entertainment purpose. The average American spends around four hours daily on his smartphone.

This definitely asks for companies like Apple and Google to take note and act fast. As a matter of fact, Apple's own investors have suggested the company to conduct studies on smartphone addiction in children. And while Apple and Google have rolled out features like Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing that help users to limit their device usage, more needs to be done.