What is your phone doing to your brain?

By Cara Williams ‘21

Whether we realize it or not, smartphones impact our lives daily.

Growing up with cell phones and spending the entirety of our lives using them, smart technology has become a normality for us. Having a smartphone is so common that it is very rare to find someone in our generation who doesn’t walk around holding a phone in their hand. Smartphones seem essential in our daily lives, and many everyday things, like mapping a driving route, couldn’t be done without access to a smartphone.

Although we may not have seen this happening or noticed it happening, smart phone accessibility and addiction has majorly increased over the past few years.

95% of American adults now own some sort of cell phone.

77% of adults own a smartphone, up from 35% as of 2011.

95% of American teens say they have access to or own a smartphone.

45% of teens report being online almost constantly.

55% of teens report spending too much time on their phones.

72% of teens check their phones almost immediately after waking up for messages.

Having access to this technology for our whole lives, and therefore not knowing life without it, has made us blind to the addictive quality of cell phones. Dr. Sandy Robertson, Boys Division science teacher who has done a lot of research surrounding the science behind addiction.

“They design cell phones to make us feel like we have a relationship with the things that are in there. And so when we have relationship, we are very loyal, we are very loving, we are very attentive when we have a relationship with someone or something. And that’s what they want us to think,” Robertson explains.

This aspect of relationship, as well as habit, are major parts of why cell phones are so addictive. These are also large components in other types of addiction, including substance addiction.

“You are in the habit of holding your phone a certain way, and if it is not there, you feel like you are missing something. So there is sort of that routine aspect of it,” says Robertson. “When you have an addiction, it’s like a personal relationship with that addiction. It’s like it’s your best friend.”

Besides becoming a habit and a relationship, smartphones and more specifically, social media, impacts the brain in the same way as drugs. An influx of dopamine, pushing the brain away from its neutral state, causes an A Reaction (a high).

When the high from checking your phone wears away, the brain then goes below its neutral state in a B Reaction. This B Reaction is when you feel the urge to check your phone again. Benjamin Danecki, Boys Division Counselor, explains why this chemical imbalance created by checking social media is so dangerous.

“Your B Reaction takes much longer to get back to neutral than your A reaction,” he said. “So when you have to use again, you need more. The more that this happens and the more it compounds, you go deeper and it takes even longer to come back up from the B Reaction.”

Although the addictivity of cell phones applies to all people, not just limited to teens, having exposure to this technology for our whole lives makes us more vulnerable to addiction and its effects.

“As someone gets older, they are better able to understand the good uses of technology but also the drawbacks of it as well. The more mature someone is and the more they are able to make those distinctions themselves, the less likely they are to become addicted to it,” expresses Danecki.

More and more studies are emerging, further proving the intricate connection between teen smartphone overuse and mental health problems, like depression, anxiety, and stress. The research is preliminary because smartphones are still so new, however many parents, teens, counselors, and researchers agree about these effects of smartphone addiction.

“Whatever kids used to do to self care, I see those things as sometimes being compromised because of that constant connectedness and feeling the need to be connected, and kind of engage with the technology,” tells Peter Reiser, Girls Division Counselor.

Social media and technology can seem inescapable to teens today. Aside from taking away from self care, smartphone addiction has many mental health effects. Rising suicide rates are a national crisis, and this also seems to correlate with the introduction and growing popularity of smartphones in the past few years.

“Having been a counselor now for 25, 26 years, and living in a world without this technology for almost half that time, I definitely think [social media] adds a whole level of stress and a whole set of stressors that kids have to deal with,” says Reiser.

More recent studies surrounding these issues have been able to link teenage cell phone overuse to damaged attention span, low amounts of sleep, and additional stressors as well as increased anxiety and depression.

These problems created by smartphone addiction may affect teenagers for their whole lives, especially in terms of creating relationships.

“Building a deep relationship is hard to do through a text because it takes five seconds to write a text and then you put your phone down and do something else,” Danecki says. “You’re not really engaged in the conversation, whereas face to face you get to see the person; you get more of that empathy and there is a lot more you gain by interacting with them.”

A student who asked to remain anonymous also agrees with it being hard to build relationships through cell phones.

“I think social media has a big impact on face to face communication, and that many people of our generation won’t be adequately prepared for real life communication scenarios in the future.”

With the issue of teenage cell phone overuse becoming much more common, the best thing that we can do to combat it and it’s effects on our brains is to try to be present. When we are with friends and family, we can put our phones down and actively engage in conversation.

Although a societal and cultural shift may need to occur in order for smartphone use to recede, we can do our part in helping the growing problem by setting an example of putting our phones down when we are around other people, and building real face-to face relationships.

Sara Higley ‘21 perfectly expresses this idea: “I think that we need to just value the time that we have with people around us instead of valuing our time with our phone.”

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