Universal access to the internet via mobile devices has simplified and enriched our everyday lives. However, concerns regarding the potential negative effects of excessive internet and smartphone use on our mental health are also growing. Can I become addicted to my phone? Is digital screen time actually “digital cocaine”? How much is scaremongering and which are actually well-founded concerns? Researchers have now reviewed the existing evidence.
By Christian Montag & Benjamin Becker
In 2019, about 55% of the world’s population have access to the internet. For many people, their smartphone has become the most important device to access the World Wide Web, representing one of the driving forces towards a completely connected society.
Although mobile internet use enables us to easily navigate in unknown territory or to communicate across vast distances at low cost, many scientists are concerned that the excessive use of smartphones might have detrimental effects on our mental health. They also wonder whether smartphone overuse may resemble symptoms and mechanisms of addictive behavior. Both psychologists and neuroscientists approach these questions from different perspectives and with different methods.
Smartphone overuse and mental health issues – a chicken and egg problem?
From a psychological perspective, increasing evidence suggests that excessive smartphone use can go hand in hand with depression and anxiety. However, these associations are still poorly understood. Does excessive smartphone use cause mental disorders, or are depressed and anxious people more prone to developing a smartphone addiction? This question remains to be answered.
Recent research has demonstrated that most excessive smartphone users spend their mobile screen time on messengers and social media applications such as WhatsApp. Frequent smartphone usage has also been shown to result in inattention, with constant interruptions leading to decreased productivity.
Internet use disorders not officially recognized as mental disorders
The investigation of the psychological impact of excessive smartphone use falls into the wider research area of Internet Use Disorders (IUDs – formerly known as Internet Addiction).
Currently, IUDs are not officially recognized as mental disorders in diagnostic systems such as the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), issued by the World Health Organization. An exception represents (Internet) Gaming Disorder, a specific form of IUD, the status of which is due to be formalized in May 2019.
Excessive gaming changes the brain
An increasing number of neuroscientific studies have been examining the effects of excessive internet usage on the structure and function of the human brain. To this end, most researchers employ magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies.
Several studies have already revealed brain changes in excessive internet users which resemble previous observations in substance and behavioral addicts (such as pathological gamblers). One example is “cue reactivity” – a learned response to specific stimuli. When excessive internet gamers look at stills from their favorite game, they tend to show strong activity bursts in the reward center of the brain. This is usually accompanied by impaired cognitive functions, suggesting a loss of control over one’s own internet or gaming engagement.
For other types of IUDs, such as excessive social media or pornography use, neuroscientific research has only recently begun to explore a potential pathological relevance. Given the ever-present availability of these contents via mobile devices, research in these areas is of great scientific and societal relevance.
Thorough consideration of evidence necessary before pathologizing behavior
However, according to psychologists from Ulm University and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China (UESTC), who recently presented the current state of IUD research in the journal Neuroforum, it is also important to avoid premature pathologizing of smartphone use. They stress that the public and scientific debate needs to carefully consider current evidence and alternative explanations before characterizing individual variations of everyday behavior as abnormal.
The majority of previous studies that reported psychological and brain changes in excessive users did so in comparison to control subjects. It could be possible, the researchers note, that the observed changes simply represent predispositions in people, which put them at a higher risk of developing excessive usage.
Furthermore, although there is initial evidence for similarities between substance and behavioral addictions, the researchers take a critical stance when popular media put the excessive use of smartphones on the same level as cocaine: “Clearly some of the underlying psychological and neuroscientific mechanisms may overlap. However, it also needs to be considered that substance addiction involves the escalating intake of potentially neurotoxic substances, which can cause detrimental effects on the brain and mental health independently from the addictive behavior itself.”
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For insights into additive tendencies towards Gaming Disorder please visit do-i-play-too-much-videogames.com (English).