How Smartphone Addiction Is Affecting Teens’ Brains


Guest Post by Sandi Schwartz

Kids today are spending an exorbitant amount of time glued to their electronics. A 2015 survey published by Common Sense Media found that American teenagers ages 13 to 18 averaged six and a half hours of screen time per day on social media and other activities like video games. In addition, a 2015 report from Pew Research Center found that 24 percent of teenagers ages 13 to 17 reported being online “almost constantly,” and that 73 percent had a smartphone or access to one. Sadly, more teens are also starting to get addicted to their phones and other devices. There is even now a term “nomophobia” to describe people who can’t handle being away from their phone. One study found that 66 percent of people in the United Kingdom have some form of nomophobia.

With all of this excessive phone use, a group of neuroscientists wanted to find out if the exposure is damaging neurological health, especially in children and teens whose brains are still developing. The research team from Korea University in Seoul, South Korea recently published a study which found that being addicted to smartphones creates a chemical imbalance in the brain linked to depression and anxiety in young people.

About 20 teens being treated for smartphone or internet addiction, half boys and half girls with an average age of 15, were recruited to participate in the study. First, researchers evaluated the seriousness of the teens’ addiction by looking at their productivity, feelings, social life, and daily routines. They noted that teens addicted to their phones had higher rates of anxiety, depression, impulse control problems, and sleep disorders than other teens their age.

Next, researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to identify and track the movement of biochemicals in the teens’ brains. They documented the levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (Gaba), a chemical messenger in the brain that slows down brain signals. Previous studies have found GABA to be involved in motor control, the regulation of certain brain functions, and vision. Too much GABA may lead to anxiety. Glutamate-glutamine (Glx), a neurotransmitter that causes the brain’s nerve cells to become excited, was also observed. Ratios of GABA to Gix or GABA to creatine help regulate emotions and cognitive ability. So, addiction, anxiety, and depression can occur when they are out of balance.

The results clearly showed that the brain was altered as a result of internet or smartphone addiction. The ratio of Gaba to Gix was significantly higher in the part of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex (which is known to be linked with addiction) before the teenagers received therapy. GABA slows down neurons, resulting in poorer attention and control. Therefore, when people are too attached to their phone, they are essentially destroying their ability to focus. Addicted teenagers also had significantly higher levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and impulsivity.

Finally, the teens then went through a nine-week cognitive behavioral therapy program including mindfulness to address their phone addiction. Interestingly, the levels of GABA to glutamate-glutamine normalized after the therapy.  

Although the study was limited because of the small sample size used, the results are troubling. We can clearly see the connection between extensive phone use and negative changes to the brain. No matter what age our children are, we can start to think about how to break their reliance on phones and other electronics before they get too attached, or possibly even addicted.

What can parents do?

  • Learn more about technology addiction and evaluate if your children are struggling. Consider taking this online quiz.
  • Seek professional help so they can undergo cognitive behavioral therapy.
  •  Introduce mindfulness to help break their tech habit.
  •  Enforce tech use rules, such as putting gadgets away during dinner and homework time, and while driving.
  • Remove social media apps, like Facebook and Twitter, from their phone and only allow them to check those sites from their laptop.
  • Remove chimes from their phone so they are not constantly prompted to look at a new text or post as it arrives.
  • Forbid the use of electronics before bedtime, as this can disturb sleep patterns.  
  • Help your children replace electronics with healthier activities like creative arts, meditating, exercise, and talking to people in person.

This article originally appeared on

Sandi Schwartz.jpg

Sandi Schwartz is a freelance writer/blogger and mother of two. She has written extensively about parenting, wellness, and environmental issues. In addition to her blog Happy Science Mom, her work has appeared in many online and print publications including Chicken Soup for the Soul, Scary Mommy, Parent.Co, Motherly, Very Well Family, and The Week. Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram: @happysciencemom

PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.