why studies claiming that smartphone addiction is real don’t hold up

Far too many of us tend to accept the idea that smartphones are addictive and actively ruining the brains of heavy users. But studies into the idea find little to prove this notion.
woman reading on smartphone
Photo by Bruno Cervera

Have you heard about the man who walked into a coffee shop, placed an order, then just sat there without glancing at his smartphone, just looking out the window and drinking coffee like a psychopath? It’s an oft repeated joke on the internet and it’s easy to see why. As our phones became handheld computers with large, crisply detailed screens and websites modified their layouts to adjust to and look good on those screens, many of us spend a lot of time looking at them to read the news, browse social media apps, and catch up with friends and family while we go about our day. It’s easy, it’s convenient, and according to technophobes, totally ruining our brains and causing addiction to our electronic devices.

Now, the idea that our phones could be addictive is nothing new. Designers even admit that gamifying our use of apps and certain sites, creating an itch to refresh, is their goal, and some even go on to lament that they’ve gone too far and try to make a living by claiming that they’ll rescue us from their own evil handiwork. But the evidence for smartphone addiction is thin at best, often relying on self-reports and self-diagnoses in relatively small convenience samples, putting it into the same category as sex addiction. The people who believe that it’s a serious problem are making that decision themselves and are often trying to actively cut down, the opposite behavior of those psychologists would say suffer from an addiction.

do smartphones change your brain?

Studies on smartphone addiction looking into the brain don’t fare much better either. One of the latest studies to catch the tabloids’ attention looked at MRI scans of just 48 people and found that those who identified as addicts exhibited changes similar to those seen in patients addicted to drugs. Sounds damning, but it’s actually rather meaningless. First, the sample size was tiny, so every correlation has to be taken with a heaping helping of salt. Secondly, out of that sample, four scans had to be discarded due to quality issues, raising a serious yellow flag for scans which were considered. And finally, comparing brain structure changes is nothing like comparing biometrics. Matches in brain scans may not indicate a whole lot.

Brain scans can’t tell you causation, which is what we’re trying to find here. Did the subjects who say they’re smartphone addicts develop those changes or are they indicative to some sort of predisposition to compulsive behavior, which is why it could also be seen in drug addicts? The researchers don’t know, which is why they stress that they found correlations, but that’s a far cry from the claim tabloids are implying as they blame the phones. Likewise, these changes may also be correlated with repetitive behaviors, which would have required a third group of self-identified addicts to, say, working out, to be added to the study. There’s just not enough data in a simple MRI scan to get any real insight into what’s happening.

why studying brain structure is so hard

But it’s not just this study that suffers from an inability to draw anything more than correlations between behaviors and brain structures. Our brains are constantly changing and rewiring their inner circuitry. They do is as we mature, when we sleep as a form of critical maintenance, and our entire minds are like decentralized highway networks for chemicals and electrical pulses in constant flux, with every new stimulus making changes to it as it’s processed. Unless changes are glaringly obvious, like holes where gray or white matter should be, tumors, or just radically different behavior and composition of certain regions, our ability to say anything definitive is very limited due to the sheer complexity of the brain and its function.

It’s certain that any amount of smartphone use makes changes in our brain, just like anything we do, and whether those are positive or negative us up to us to decide. If our jobs keep us on the go and we have to keep looking at our phones, there’s probably nothing wrong with that. If we use it to stay on top of the news and in touch with family and friends instead of a computer because we think it’s easier to do on our phones better, that’s probably fine too. It’s when we spend hours wasting time and compulsively check our notifications, so much that it interferes with our lives, that may be sign of an underlying problem like loneliness or depression we rush to call a smartphone addiction, and that may be what the studies are really showing us.

See: Horvath, J., et al., (2020) Structural and functional correlates of smartphone addiction, Addictive Behaviors, DOI: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2020.106334

# science // brain / neurology / research

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