Smartphones & Mental Health

You’re probably reading this on your smartphone. If you’re not, chances are your phone is within arm’s reach. Over the past decade or so, we’ve accepted smartphones into our lives with open arms. From reflexively checking Facebook to Googling the name of that song on the radio, these devices have become entwined into our daily lives.

With so much information at our fingertips, it can be difficult to “unplug” from it all. So much so, that not only do many of us feel uneasy being without our phone for a few hours, some of us have actually developed an addiction to our smartphones. And this addiction doesn’t bode well for our mental and brain health.

Smartphone Addiction & Mental Health

One Korean-based study compared smartphone-addicted teenagers to non-addicted teens. The addicted teenagers scored significantly higher than their peers in levels of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and impulsivity.

Other studies have found a link between excessive smartphone usage and an impaired ability to remember, a lack of creative thinking, and reduced attention spans. Furthermore, not only is our mental health affected by smartphone and internet use, this early research has suggested that it may actually affect the structure of our brains.

Physiological Effects of Smartphones on the Brain

The Korean research found that the addicted teenagers in their study had significantly higher levels of GABA (a neurotransmitter that inhibits neurons) than a different type of neurotransmitter that energizes the brain.

When compared to other types of addiction, like alcohol, drug, and gambling, this is a noticeable similarity. This imbalance can trigger feelings of anxiety and panic when the addiction isn’t satisfied, and also contributes to poor attention and control.

Furthermore, another study found that people who frequently use multiple forms of media at once (chronic multitaskers), tend to have a smaller gray matter area in the part of the brain responsible for top-down attention control, like setting a goal and sticking to it.

While these findings may be grim, there is good news. Twelve of the teenagers who suffered from smartphone addiction underwent cognitive behavioral therapy. After nine weeks of therapy, their GABA levels normalized.

The findings that these negative changes in the brain are reversible leaves many researchers hopeful. But the best way to fight smartphone addiction is to try to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Preventing Smartphone Addiction

Try setting up “no phone times” during certain times of the day. This could be during mealtimes or family playtime. Go a step further and delete the apps from your phone that you recognize as your biggest time wasters. Try also setting a time limit to phone time. Give yourself 15-minute intervals during certain times of the day to allow yourself to indulge – but when time’s up, you’re done. Help improve your sleep by resisting the urge to scroll before bed. The blue light emitted from phone screens can throw off your circadian rhythm. With all your new free time, try picking up a new, healthy hobby like learning how to meditate or exercise. Meditation has been found to help increase cognitive performance and reduce feelings of anxiety.

While smartphones are likely here to stay, it’s important to keep your health a priority.

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LaMotte, Sandee. (2017, December 1). “Smartphone Addiction Could be Changing Your Brain.” Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/30/health/smartphone-addiction-study/index.html

Radiological Society of North America. (2017, November 30). Smartphone addiction creates imbalance in brain, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 3, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171130090041.htm