Sign up for the TODAY newsletter

You have successfully subscribed to the TODAY newsletter.

Subscribe now and get trending stories, celebrity news and all the best of TODAY.

Kids who are addicted to smartphones may have an imbalance in the brain

Teens who can't put away their phones aren't just entranced: Their brains actually have a chemical imbalance, a small new study has found.
by A. Pawlowski / / Source: TODAY

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter

Teens who can’t put away their phones aren’t just entranced: Their brains actually have a chemical imbalance, a small new study has found.

When researchers in South Korea used spectroscopy — a scan that shows substances present in the body — on adolescents who were addicted to smartphones and the internet, they found the teens had higher levels of a chemical that suppresses brain activity than their healthy peers. But after nine weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, the imbalance seemed to correct itself.

The study involved 38 teens: 19 who were identified as internet and smartphone addicts and 19 healthy gender and age‐matched kids who were used as controls. The findings will be presented Thursday at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting in Chicago.

Experts not involved in the paper called the results noteworthy, but cautioned the study was small.

“I found the reversal after treatment particularly interesting,” Dr. Max Wintermark, professor of radiology and chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University, told TODAY. “The findings are intriguing, but I would take them with a grain of salt.”

If the findings are accurate, the results would likely translate to American teens, said both Wintermark and Dr. Christopher T. Whitlow, chief of neuroradiology at the Wake Forest School of Medicine.

“Our brains are all kind of the same,” Wintermark said.

The neurotransmitter in question, called GABA, quiets down brain activity and exists in a delicate balance with another chemical that excites brain cells. The area of the brain where the imbalance showed up in the teens, called the anterior cingulate, has previously been shown to play a role in addictive behavior, Whitlow said.

“In that way, smartphone and internet addiction appears to have some similarities with addiction to other things,” he noted.

This part of the brain is also connected to regions involved in experiencing feelings like depression and anxiety, Whitlow said. High levels of GABA in the teens were indeed correlated with those feelings in the study.

Researchers don’t know whether some people are predisposed to the chemical imbalance, or whether it develops over time, based on your experiences.

The cognitive behavioral therapy for the young addicts consisted of a 75-minute session per week, for nine weeks, and was a modified version of treatment used for internet gaming addiction. Therapists helped the teens recognize their behavior, find alternative activities, promote self-control, recognize their emotions and express them, and resolve conflict with others.

How do you know if your teen is addicted?

Most kids love their smartphones and spend a ton of time online, but how do you know if it’s really a problem? As with any addiction, when an activity starts to interfere with a person’s daily life, that’s a red flag, both Whitlow and Wintermark said. In a teen’s case, that can mean a deteriorating school performance and the inability to complete assignments.

Here are more warning signs to look for, according to reSTART, the country's first residential program for internet addiction:

• A heightened sense of euphoria while involved with electronic gadgets.

• Feeling restless when not engaged in the activity.

• Craving more time online and withdrawing from other pleasurable activities.

• Being dishonest with family and friends, and neglecting them.

• Physical changes such as weight gain or loss, backaches, headaches and carpal tunnel syndrome.

• Changes in sleep patterns.

Advice for parents:

To tackle smartphone overuse and addiction, The American Academy of Pediatrics has these tips:

• Place consistent limits on the time your child is allowed to be online.

• Designate and enforce media-free times together, like the family dinner or trips in the car, when you talk about your day and connect without devices.

• Designate media-free locations in your home, such as your teen's bedroom (at least at night, when they may be tempted to use their phones when they should be sleeping).

• Implement "device curfews," when all devices will be turned off for the night.

• Take a hard look at your own smartphone habits and model better behavior: "Your kids look to you for information — 'Are you noticing if I'm doing something good? Are you noticing if I'm doing something bad?' and if your face is in your phone, you're not picking up on those things... You're teaching them being disconnected is OK," said family psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein. Power your own phone down and talk to your kids.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Get the latest from TODAY

Sign up for our newsletter
MORE FROM today