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What Smartphone Addiction Does to Your Brain

Table of young people with smartphone addiction

Is smartphone addiction a real thing?

Well, smartphone addiction is not an actual diagnosis yet, but it’s in the works. Diagnostic criteria is already being discussed in the psychiatric and medical communities.

We can see the addictive behavior in our kids and in ourselves, if we are willing, though.

Some signs of addiction are:

  • Inability to stop using
  • Obsession
  • Dropping hobbies and activities
  • Denial
  • Excess consumption
  • Withdrawal symptoms
  • Sleeplessness

These are signs of addiction to drugs, but if you are addicted to your smartphone or have a teenager who is addicted, you know these are the same symptoms.

You’ll hear often that smartphones are similar to drugs. They are…and they are designed to be.

As a co-parent to a teenanger, with little control over my son’s smartphone use, I can clearly see he is addicted.

His consumption is excessive, his legs shake and he paces around without his phone, he ignores his siblings, can’t carry through with a family meal without his phone, and he has trouble falling asleep.

He just can’t seem to separate himself from his smartphone!

He is not a special case. This is the story of millions of teenagers all over the world.

So, just like any other addiction, smartphone addiction is real.

What does it do to your brain, though?

What Smartphone Addiction Does to Your Brain

Image of brain under heading about smartphone addiction

Research suggests there are many negative effects on excessive use of smartphones.

Research gives evidence that people attend to their phones at less than opportune times, and that the digital distraction negatively affects performance in life and enjoyment of life.

The constant focus on our smartphones, even when trying to limit our use, has negative effects as well when we are in the throes of addiction. It consumes mental resources when we are not even tending to our phones.

Smartphone addiction can lead to inattentive or distracted driving, when we have our phones handy in our cars. This is similar to having live conversations while driving; we are distracted and our response times can be delayed.

In school, academic performance and material comprehension is reduced when social media and smartphones are in use.

In essence, smartphones take attention away from the things that need our attention.

Even just having your phone within your view reduces our cognitive capacity just by the distraction factor.

The present research identifies a potentially costly side effect of the integration of smartphones into daily life: smartphone-induced “brain drain.” We provide evidence that the mere presence of consumers’ smartphones can adversely affect two measures of cognitive capacity—available working memory capacity and functional fluid intelligence—without interrupting sustained attention or increasing the frequency of phone-related thoughts. Consumers who were engaged with ongoing cognitive tasks were able to keep their phones not just out of their hands, but also out of their (conscious) minds; however, the mere presence of these devices left fewer attentional resources available for engaging with the task at hand.

The negative effects of smartphone (and tablet) usage on younger children

Using smartphones and tablets to pacify young children, be it at home, the waiting room at a doctor’s office, or at a restaurant can have detrimental effects on a child’s developing emotional and social development.

In these cases, it’s not so much the screen itself causing the issues, it’s what the screen is replacing. How is a child supposed to learn that it’s ok to be bored, upset, or have to wait, if we hand them instant gratification at the first whign?

And are we feeding a future habit?

You would intervene or seek help if you or your child had an addiction to drugs or alcohol. Smartphone addiction shouldn’t be any different.

So, what can you do about it?

If you have a teenager showing signs of smartphone addiction, the answer is easy.

You are the parent, and your probably the person who supplied the phone. So, parent-up and start setting limits.

teen staring at her smartphone

Here are some suggestions if you think your teenager is spending too much time on their smartphone:

  • No phones at the dinner table
  • No phones when it’s time to be with siblings (for blended families, especially)
  • No phones in the bedroom at night
  • No phones on family outings
  • No phones during family games or movies
  • No phones in the room during school work
  • No phones at school

You can even set specific hours during the day/evening wherein your child can use their phone, then keep it in your possession at all other times.

If you are the one with the smartphone addiction, here are some suggestions:

  • Do not bring your phone with you at bedtime
  • Set times during the day to check your phone
  • Set the same rules for yourself as you do for your teenager
  • Focus on human interaction; make friends, get involved with adult groups
  • Keep your phone out of sight as much as possible

The internet has taken over our lives. Smartphones are the tarmac from which this has happened.

The sheer amount of information and our capacity to process that information just don’t match up, for one. This is why it is so important to be selective in how we take in our information.

The internet is awesome, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that we can access information in a matter of seconds.

But do we really need to have constant access to limitless information? Do our kids need really this?

Have we lost the art of patience? The art of opening a book or a newspaper to find out what we need to know?

Remember the time before smartphones and how we were just fine? We waited for phone calls; there was no need to be in constant contact with everyone we knew.

We were able to drive somewhere without texting the person, “I’m almost there“. And we lived! Hell, we had a better chance of actually making it there!

Parents divorced and co-parented without their children “needing” their own phone for communication. And the world kept spinning on its axis.

A middle ground, folks, is what we need. Use your smartphones, but know when to put them away or turn them off.

Looking for feedback! How do you feel about your smartphone usage? And your kids’?

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Monday 13th of January 2020

Great post, we see it every where we go and if we let them they would be glued to the phones and tablets. With technology advancing every day I know it's hard to know where to draw the line, but we as parents have to give the example.

Kelly| citytoast2southerntea

Sunday 12th of January 2020

my son seriously has cellphone obsession. I am trying to wheen him off.


Saturday 11th of January 2020

Wow! As I read this, I can’t but wonder if I’m not addicted too. I tell myself I’m not, but I can’t be too sure. I do everything on my phone. With this age where everything is digital, I wonder if majority of us aren’t. I mean we even read news and books on our smart phones. I think I’m setting time for my phone use too. Thanks for this post, it’s very reflective and informative.


Friday 10th of January 2020

Great post! So many kids and adults are addicted to smart phones and other devices. I think we’re just beginning to see the impact of so much screen time.


Friday 10th of January 2020

These are all great tips. My husband and I were “older” when we became parents, and actually didn’t even have smartphones/use social media ourselves until our kids were both in preschool (and my husband STILL doesn’t use social media!). We didn’t even let our kids watch screens until the youngest was 2, and then it was (gasp!) VHS tapes of Disney films on our old non-flat-screen TV in the basement. We already didn’t watch TV at home as a conscious choice, and have NEVER let our kids play with our phones/used them as a pacifier, phones are off-limits at table, and all our phones “sleep” 1 floor down from where the rest of us sleep. While we were very conscious in setting up all these limits as part of helping our kids develop future healthy habits, a lot of people are probably less than deliberate than we were when they become parents, and thus end up in some of the situations you describe above. While it can be harder to undo bad habits than avoiding them in the first place, you’ve done a great job of both outlining the problem and offering solutions.

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