Being addicted to smartphones creates a chemical imbalance in the brain linked to depression and anxiety in young people, a study suggests.
Scientists also found teenagers who obsessively use their mobile devices scored high on standardised tests that detect mental disorders.
The experiment involved 38 young people with an average age of 15.5, half of whom were diagnosed with internet or smartphone addiction, while the rest formed the healthy control group.
Out of the 19 teenagers addicted to smartphones, 12 received cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to treat addiction as part of the study.
The team from Korea University in Seoul, South Korea, used a device known as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to measure all the participants’ brain chemical composition.
They documented the levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (Gaba) – a chemical messenger in the brain that slows down brain signals – and glutamate-glutamine (Glx) – a neurotransmitter that causes the brain’s nerve cells to become excited.
The results showed in teenagers with smartphone addiction, the ratio of Gaba to Glx was significantly higher in the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex prior to therapy, compared to the healthy control group.
Study author Hyung Suk Seo, a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University, said this ratio correlates to depression and anxiety.
They also found that Gaba to Glx ratios decreased after cognitive therapy.
Dr Seo said: “The increased Gaba levels and disrupted balance between Gaba and glutamate in the anterior cingulate cortex may contribute to our understanding the pathophysiology of and treatment for addictions.”
Measuring the severity of smartphone addiction using standardised tests, the team also found addicted teenagers had “significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia severity and impulsivity”.
Dr Seo added: “The higher the score, the more severe the addiction.”
The scientists say further research is needed to understand the clinical implications of their findings but add that high levels of Gaba in the brain could be related to “functional loss” in certain areas of the brain.
The study was presented at the Radiological Society of North America.