Is Your Smartphone Addiction Making You Dumb?

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“MRIs reveal smartphone addiction physically changes brains,” cries a headline from Cult of Mac, which picked up the story from the Daily Mail. (Heavy sigh.) (Throat clearing.) 


Got it? Everything. You, watching this video right now, is changing your brain, physically. If your brain isn’t constantly changing, I’ve got some bad news for you. You are dead.

Amazingly, the Daily Mail headline is better, saying “How smartphone addiction changes your BRAIN: Scans reveal how grey matter of tech addicts physically changes shape and size in a similar way to drug users”

Okay, so it changes “shape and size in a similar way to drug users.” Now we have something to work with. Let’s move on to the study.

Twenty-two people with “smartphone addiction” were shoved into an MRI. Compared to people who did not have “smartphone addiction,” the “addicts” showed (according to researchers) “lower gray matter volume in insula and temporal cortex” and “reduced resting-state activity of the anterior cingulate cortex.”

To start off, let me just say that I don’t hate this study. It is what it is. But this fMRI data pops up several times a year in the mainstream press and it’s pretty much always reported on like this: video game addicts have brains like drug addicts! Cheese triggers the same part of your brain as drugs! Porn addiction is just like drug abuse! I’m like a chocoholic, but for alcohol! And also chocolate!

One of the main reasons this comparison happens so often, as Dean Burnett pointed out in the Guardian several years ago, is that all of these things are fun. Drugs are fun! Video games? Fun! Porn? Super fun! Cheese? THE FUNNEST. Pleasurable things all light up the same bits of our brains, the same reward pathways. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad or damaging.

So you should always, always be skeptical when you see anything in a headline that compares an object to drugs in how it affects the brain. Does that mean it’s wrong? No, it just means it’s a fairly useless comparison.

With that out of the way, the articles are framing this as actual damage — not just lighting up reward pathways like a drug, but decreasing brain activity and shrinking grey matter. So let’s talk about that.

For a start, no one really knows how much brain activity in any particular area is “normal.” You may notice that all these MRI studies have very small sample sizes — that’s because they’re fucking expensive and annoying. We can’t just throw thousands of people into fMRIs to see what their brain is doing whenever they’re on their phone, watching porn, or just thinking about cheese and how delicious it is. So while you can say “this small group of smartphone addicts shows some reduced activity compared to this small control group,” you can’t say that that means smartphone addiction reduces activity. For a start, you don’t know if that applies to the population at large. Second, you don’t know if it’s really a bad thing. Third, you don’t know if it’s reversible. And finally, you don’t know if those people already had lower activity in that part of the brain which then led them to develop an addiction to their smartphone, as opposed to the assumption that their smartphone reduced that activity.

The other issue this study found was a shrinkage of grey matter. Again, you don’t know if that’s a very bad thing. You don’t know if it’s applicable to the population at large. You don’t know if it’s reversible. And you don’t know if it comes with an increase in other areas. That’s what happened in at least one study on video games. As Neuroskeptic wrote on Discovery, “Action gaming led to a reduction in grey matter in the right hippocampus – but only in people with a ‘response learning style’. In those with a ‘spatial learning style’, action games increased grey matter in the left hippocampus.”

Again, none of this makes this a bad study. I’ll leave that type of designation to actual neurologists who can dig into the details a bit more. In general, more data is a good thing! But giving fodder to the Daily Mail to fear-monger is most definitely not.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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