Study Finds Difference in Brains of Smartphone-Addicted Teens

By Kelly Burch 12/07/17

Teens who were more dependent on their smartphones scored higher for depression, anxiety and impulsivity.

teens using smartphones

Excessive smartphone use can change the neurotransmitters in the brains of teenagers, leading to increased risk for depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsivity.

The research comes from a new study presented earlier this week at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America. Study author Hyung Suk Seo, MD, professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, used MRIs to look at the brain activities of teens who were addicted to their smartphones and the internet.

Seo found that the more addicted a teen was, the more likely he or she was to experience negative consequences, including depression and anxiety.

To find out why, researchers conducted MRIs that measured 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. Addicted teens had a higher ratio of GABA to Glx, which can result in drowsiness, depression and anxiety.

After the teens received treatment for their addictions (modified from treatment plans for video game addiction) their ratios normalized.

The study is the latest to raise concerns about the effects of smartphone use and excessive screen time on the mental health of teens. A study published in November found that teens who spend five hours or more on their phones are at increased risk of mental health issues, including suicidal ideation.

"When I first saw these sudden increases in mental health issues, I wasn't sure what was causing them," said Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and lead author of the study. However, a connection soon became clear.

"These same surveys ask teens how they spend their leisure time, and between 2010 and 2015, teens increasingly spent more time with screens and less time on other activities,” she said. “That was by far the largest change in their lives during this five-year period, and it's not a good formula for mental health. Although we can't say for sure that the growing use of smartphones caused the increase in mental health issues, that was by far the biggest change in teens' lives between 2010 and 2015.”

Another recent study made the same connection between use of smartphones and  a sharp spike in the number of teens hospitalized for self harm.

“It is unclear why the rate of self-injury among younger teens has climbed,” The Washington Post wrote in reporting the study, “though some experts say it could be because of the girls' access to smartphones and Internet bullying.”

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.