The increased reliance and reluctance to put down smartphones has introduced a new and increasingly common addiction called “nomophobia” which is derived from the phrase “no-mobile-phone-phobia,” and is a fear of being without access to a working cell phone.
Researchers who have studied phone addiction have noticed changes and imbalances in brain chemistry among young people. Higher scores in anxiety, depression and insomnia were in the results found in a 2017 study from the Radiological Society of North America.
The study was conducted by doing magnetic resonance spectroscopy scans, a type of MRI scan that analyzes the brain’s chemical composition. The researchers found that smartphone use increases the levels of a neurotransmitters that slow down brain signals. High amounts of these neurotransmitters regulate various brain functions, including as anxiety and drowsiness.
William Marelich, Cal State Fullerton professor of psychology said one reason this may be a problem is because people are always looking for reinforcement and a sense of belonging.
In today’s digital world, phones make their users feel wanted or part of a larger group, Marelich said. At the same time though, smartphone use also creates a constant feeling of “what are we missing?” if they are without their device.
“There’s research that people who use their smartphones a lot feel like they need to be connected when they’re actually more likely to be disconnected,” Marelich said. “Overuse of smartphones can actually lead to depression and isolation.”
Smartphones also have a way of stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers, which are parts of the brain that inform people when something is enjoyable, reinforcing our desire to do it again, said Cynthia King, CSUF professor of communications.
Phone applications and social media can release a certain chemical in the brain “and in a sense can create a physiological addiction to getting those pleasure buttons pushed,” King said.
Early studies are being conducted on whether humans are victims of technology or if smartphones have become so integrated into human relationships that it is needed to maintain connections, although some researchers believe it could be both.
King said she thinks it has to do with a constant need to be entertained.
“The biggest issue with these portable devices is that people don’t know how to be bored. They can’t self-soothe and can’t self-stimulate because they’re used to having a device to do that for them,” King said.
Not only does nomophobia cause a change in brain chemistry, it can cause eye strain, neck problems, sleep disturbances, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and anxiety.
“People get too distracted, they get too drawn into this little black space in their hands,” Marelich said. “Hopefully, people will wake up and realize we need to be social animals and not texting animals.”