Source NewsScientist - By Timothy Revell
Glued to your phone? A chemical imbalance in your brain may be to blame – a finding that may lead to new treatments for people who believe they are addicted to technology.
A study of teenagers who are “addicted” to their smartphones or the internet has found that people who struggle with so-called tech addiction seem to have more of a chemical that slows down brain signals, and less of a chemical that makes neurons more active.
Those who were addicted had more of a neurotransmitter called GABA, which is thought to help regulate anxiety, but less of the chemical glutamate, which causes neurons to become electrically excited.
Hyung Suk Seo at Korea University and his team discovered this by scanning the brains of 19 people who answered in surveys that their tech usage is detrimental to their lives, and comparing the results with 19 people of similar age who don’t have problems with tech.
Of the 19 tech addicts, 12 were given brain scans capable of detecting neurotransmitter levels before and after a course of cognitive behavioural therapy designed to reduce the amount of time a person spends using technology. The remaining seven just had one initial scan.
The team found that the relative levels of GABA and glutamate converged towards more normal levels in those that underwent the therapy. These results were presented at the Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago today.
It isn’t clear yet why the people in this study had a GABA-glutamate imbalance, and whether this might be a cause or effect of tech addiction. But Seo hopes the findings will help inform new treatments for people struggling to unhook themselves from their smartphones and the internet.
We don’t have a clear picture of how widespread tech addiction might be – or even if it really counts as an addiction. However Daria Kuss, at Nottingham Trent University, UK, has found that two thirds of smartphone notifications elicit a positive emotional response. “The rewards might not be as strong as substance or gambling addiction, but can still lead to people obsessively checking their phones,” she says.
Technology companies know this, and have begun using insights from psychology to make people want to use their products more often. Users keep scrolling on social media sites in anticipation of a positive emotional hit, and every time they get one the pattern is reinforced. So it’s no wonder that we reach for our smartphone 2600 times a day, pulling it out every time we are anxious, bored or sad.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re addicted. “The term ‘addiction’ would be appropriate only for the very small minority of users who are compulsively chained to their smart phones, despite them now providing little or no fun, and instead causing clinically significant distress and impairment,” says Allen Frances, a psychiatrist.
Frances previously chaired the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) task force, which guides mental health diagnosis in the US and beyond. The DSM is yet to include internet addiction as a diagnosis, for fear of mislabelling many of the two billion people around the world who are attached to their smartphones. Few people are so addicted to checking Twitter that it ruins their life and people don’t commit crimes to feed their Instagram habits.
Similarly, caffeine addiction is not included in the DSM as “billions of people around the world are hooked on caffeine for fun or better functioning, but only rarely does this cause more trouble than its worth,” says Frances.
Nevertheless, tech addiction is a concept that already carries some stigma – so much so that Seo’s team found it difficult to recruit participants for their study. “Young people didn’t want to be involved because they didn’t want to spend time away from their phones, and parents didn’t like it either because they worried that people would think their children were addicts,” he says.