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How Your Phone Is Changing Your Brain

Technology is an amazing invention (I use it every day to run this blog!). We have practically everything we could ever need to know, imagine, and become curious about at our fingertips.

In fact, according to former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, we collectively create as much information in two days as has been created from the dawn of civilization until 2003. That’s pretty amazing!

However, there’s a saying that with great power comes great responsibility. We’re just beginning to understand that unlimited technology can have a downside. One serious concern is what technology can do to our brains.

Screen Addiction

Just as a person can become addicted to sugar, alcohol, drugs, or numerous other substances or behaviors, people can easily become addicted to technology.

The Reward Feedback Loop

Dopamine motivates us to seek out new information and pleasurable experiences. In nature this is an important function. Seeking food, water, shelter, companionship, and other necessities of life keeps us alive.

In fact, the anticipation of a reward is more motivating than the reward itself. A study found that destroying the dopamine in rats’ brains (the part that motivated them to seek) caused the rats to starve to death within inches of food.

Another part of this system is the pleasure-experiencing factor which happens in the opioid system. Dopamine motivates us to seek; the opioid system causes satisfaction (temporarily pausing the seeking).

This reward also encourages more seeking, and the cycle continues. We seek food, it tastes good, we are motivated to seek food again.

How Biology Short Circuits Into Addiction

What happens with technology (in particular, smartphones) is very dependent on this feedback loop. We seek information, we get it (and are satisfied temporarily), and then we are motivated to seek more information.

Unlike with food though, there is no physical feeling of being “full” from technology. If we’re full from a meal, we aren’t as motivated to seek food (though we will when we feel hungry again). With technology the satisfaction is less satisfying and the desire to seek becomes stronger.

One more thing to think about here: We also have to consider that food is important for survival while what we do online isn’t. So it’s good to some extent to be “addicted” to food (at least the right kind that creates a satisfied full feeling and improves health), but when we become addicted to the reward feedback loop of social media, emails, text messages, etc., that’s not beneficial to us.

How to Know If You’re Phone-Addicted

Of course, none of us like to think we’re addicted to our phones. We look at them because we think that that e-mail, text, or article is important. That is true some of the time, but there are some tell-tale signs of when we are in control of our phone use, and when it is in control of us.

According to Addiction.com, some symptoms of technology addiction to look for are:

  • compulsive checking of notifications and text messages
  • constant updating of social media accounts
  • a feeling of euphoria when using technology
  • disinterest in things that don’t include technology
  • social withdrawal
  • anxiety or restlessness when unable to use technology

I recognize several of these habits in myself. How about you?

Memory

The more we use technology in our lives the less information we store in our memories. Think about it — most of us haven’t memorized a phone number or found our way to a location without GPS in years.

Because of technology, we don’t have to store information in our brains but only have to remember where to find that information. A 2017 study on smartphones and cognition found that technology does indeed cause this “memory externalization” (but the researchers also caution that the Rolodex did too).

Maybe memory externalization isn’t always a bad thing, but when reliance on technology keeps us from learning and remembering from our environment and experiences, that could be a problem. For example, relying on GPS instead of learning how to navigate could have serious consequences when the GPS isn’t working.

Rapid Fire Information

Information overload also makes it difficult to form long-term memories. We have so much information going into our brains on a daily basis that we can’t keep up with it. (Moms live in this zone!)

Generally we can filter out the unimportant information and place the important information into our long-term memory for safe keeping. These long-term memories shape our thoughts (and our experiences in turn).

With information from our smartphones, laptops, etc. coming into our brains at rapid speed, it can’t decipher what’s important anymore. All of that information cycles into and out of the brain — none getting into long-term storage.

Add in distractions and it gets worse. Studies show that the brain works better to create long-term memories when we are actively paying attention to what we’re reading or learning, as this article explains.

In other words, if we’re multitasking or getting rapid-fire information (like in social media) our brains retain weak memories at best.

Concentration and Cognitive Function

It’s commonly thought that our attention spans are decreasing (perhaps shorter than that of a goldfish!). Whether attention spans are actually shrinking or not (it’s debated), it’s just much more difficult to concentrate on one thing when so many other things are calling for attention.

And it’s not just our use of technology that decreases our concentration. It’s the technology itself. One study found that the mere presence of a smartphone (even when it’s off) impairs cognitive function. Researchers at the University of Texas concluded that participants were distracted from their task because the brain was actively working to not pick up the smartphone.

It’s interesting and a little concerning all at once… as a mom I have enough distraction going on!

Anxiety

Smartphones and other technology don’t just affect how we think, but may cause mental health issues like anxiety. The compulsion to check notifications and updates itself is stressful. Also, fear of missing out if we don’t keep up with our phones may cause anxiety too.

This isn’t just in our heads. One revealing study from Korea University found that the ratio of GABA (an anti-anxiety amino acid) to creatine and glutamate correlated to depression and anxiety as well as the score of how addicted people were to the internet and their phones. Since GABA is an anti-anxiety amino acid, this is a problem. (Of course this doesn’t mean it is the direct cause, but interesting to note…)

Social Life

Scientific research surrounding how technology affects our brains is still fairly new but the few studies we do have are concerning. One study out of the University of Michigan found that social media use and narcissism are linked (though it’s unclear which came first). However, social media could be fueling the fire of narcissistic behavior.

Some experts believe that the ubiquitous use of screens in children prevents children as young as 5 years old from recognizing and reading others’ emotions. This may cause them to be less empathetic.

Additionally, though technology can make us feel like we’re more connected, we may be more alone than ever. A recent study found that of young people under thirty-five, a whopping 48 percent felt like they had just one person they could confide in. (In a similar study twenty-five years ago respondents said they had three confidants.)

This new loneliness is surprising considering young people are typically the most social group, but it make sense when you consider that socializing online is not the same as IRL (“in real life”).

Online we can groom our “brand” by choosing the best photos, status updates, and hashtags. In real life we have quirks, imperfections, and vulnerabilities that are often the real reason we connect with other people.

How to Find Balance

It can be overwhelming to hear all of the downfalls of technology, especially since so many of us are never far from it. We pretty much run our lives, take pictures of our kids, and get our daily information from smartphones. But really, it’s about balance.

Technology isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and I’m happy to have it in my life. But I also don’t want my phone to take me away from enjoying my family (they’re only small once after all!). We can reap the benefits of technology while keeping the drawbacks to a minimum.

Here are some ways that have worked for us as we grow our technology management skills:

  • Take a digital day off – Based on the studies I’ve seen even just a few days away from technology can help improve brain power. When I first started this digital day off I was antsy and kept having the impulse to check my phone. Instead, I made a point of reading or playing with my kids. Now it’s something I look forward to each week. I also like that I’m showing my kids a better example of what it means to have uninterrupted family time.
  • Turn off notifications – Since our brains are hardwired to enjoy the anticipation of rewards, those notifications make it impossible to ignore them. Notifications from a smartphone can also interrupt thought processes and cause us to think about irrelevant things. Turning off notifications can make it easier to focus on other things (family, work, social events, etc.) without the interruption of texts and other updates.
  • Turn off screen color – If you’re willing to take a little bit more drastic of a step, consider switching your smartphone (or your child’s tablet) to grayscale. Researchers say that this helps reduce the reward loop of checking the phone. (I’m going to try this one!)
  • Work on an IRL social network – Schedule a “date” or a moms’ night out with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Reach out to new friends too. And of course, make these interactions smartphone-free!
  • Go camping – When detoxing is too hard when you’re at home, consider going camping. Being out in nature to digitally detox and can be a great opportunity to be with friends and family. Leaving the digital devices at home (except one cell phone for emergencies) makes the detox easier — no devices, no temptation.
  • Be intentional – So much technology use is mindless. Make an effort to be intentional about it and you may notice a huge difference. Choose when you’ll use technology each day. For example, you may want to check email just once or twice a day as Tim Ferriss recommends, or you may want to put the screens down at 8 pm each night and read instead. You may also want to leave your phone downstairs at night so you have to get up before using it (better for less EMF radiation too).

Bottom Line: Unplug Your Brain

Smartphones can have lasting effects on our memories, concentration, cognitive function, and even our social lives. But they can also be an incredible tool for education and staying connected to family and friends. Too much of a good thing isn’t a good thing, so taking a break and setting up boundaries around how technology is used in the home can make a huge difference in whether it’s harmful or helpful.

This article was medically reviewed by Amy Shah, MD, Medical Advisor to Genexa through partnership with the Wellness Mama Team. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

Have you noticed any negative effects of technology and smartphone use? What has been your experience?

Sources:

  1. Wilmer, H. H., Sherman, L. E., & Chein, J. M. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5403814/
  2. Gregoire, C. (2017, December 07). How Technology Is Warping Your Memory. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/11/technology-changes-memory_n_4414778.html
  3. Hunley, S. (2017, March 03). Does Smartphone Use Effect Your Anxiety And Depression? Retrieved from https://www.anxiety.org/smartphone-use-and-its-relationship-to-anxiety-and-depression
  4. Griffin, A. (2017, December 01). Smartphone addiction causes an imbalance in the brain that makes people tired and anxious, study finds. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/smartphone-internet-addiction-phone-imbalance-brain-anxiety-tiredness-study-research-a8084146.html
  5. You’re so vain: U-M study links social media and narcissism. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://news.umich.edu/you-re-so-vain-u-m-study-links-social-media-and-narcissism/
  6. Is technology making kids less empathetic? (2015, May 04). Retrieved from https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/parenting/kids/uk-psychiatrist-believes-the-high-rates-of-technology-use-are-causing-kids-to-show-signs-of-autism/news-story/825d263047a8fb5d854f238e4ca5b804
  7. W. (2012, May 25). Text or Talk: Is Technology Making You Lonely? Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/womensmedia/2012/05/24/text-or-talk-is-technology-making-you-lonely/
  8. White, M. C. (2015, July 20). Your Cell Phone Is Killing Your Productivity, But Not for the Reason You Think | Money. Retrieved from http://time.com/money/3956968/cell-phone-alert-productivity/




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