Now that practically every teenager on the planet is tethered to their smartphones, how is it affecting their teenage brain? Like any new addition to the social mainstream, it often takes years before the good, bad and ugly can be identified.

Smartphones harm teen brains

Cell phone use had, and may still have, its health concerns regarding air wave exposure. Now smartphone use, primarily amongst teens, holds several years of studies showing its effects. From seamless information to vision-straining screen size to compulsions to habitually check social media profiles, today’s teenagers’ brains could potentially be morphing into the good, bad and ugly of smartphone use influence.


Telltale Info

Of the approximately five billion cell phones manufactured to date, 1.8 billion are smartphones. Most teenagers that own a smartphone will admit that getting their driver’s license pales in comparison. A car used to mean freedom to hit the road and explore. This is no longer a desire since most teens have had the freedom of the internet since they could hold a device.

Therefore, here are some stats regarding smartphone obsession:
  • A smartphone is looked at about 150 times per day.
  • About half of users say that this constant checking applies to workdays and holidays.
  • 3 minutes is the approximate time teens have admitted dedicating to a task before they had to check their smartphone.
  • 60% of teens text during class.
  • 29% cannot lead day-to-day activities and behaviors without their smartphones and 41% experience anxiety if they are separated from their device.
  • 24% of users admit texting while driving (this has been shown to be six times more dangerous than driving drunk).

Couch Potato Brain

Drug and alcohol use amongst teens used to be a major concern for parents. Nowadays, teens are more likely to be frying their brains through their smartphone addiction. A 2011 study by Chinese researchers reported that overuse of the internet on smartphones or other devices may cause grey matter atrophy.


MRI scans revealed that the brain’s cortex or grey wrinkled surface developed “structural alterations” such as shrinking and atrophy (wasting away). This area of the brain is responsible for keeping track of memories, emotions, speech, sight, hearing and motor control, meaning that a lot of varied and unique functions are all controlled in this one area. As a result, being addicted to a smartphone could result in behavioral as well as cognitive impairment.


Teen Smartphone Addiction: A Mental Disorder

The results of smartphone overuse have been compared to Internet Use Gaming Disorder (IUGD) which is now included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Lead author of the IUGD study, Dr. Jonghun Lee professor of psychiatry at the Catholic University of Daegu School of Medicine in South Korea, commented at the American Psychiatric Association's (APA's) 2013 Annual Meeting that psychopathologies are directly correlated to addictedness or addictive personalities in teens. Furthermore, he blames smartphone addiction explicitly on the social role of smartphones—namely that forces like peer pressure and the need to be socially accepted drive teens to extensive smartphone use.


Telltale Signs

If you think your teen is constantly turning their brain on and off with smartphone overuse look for these telltale signs:
  • Continued anxiety when their phone is taken away
  • Sleeplessness with or without their phone
  • Weight loss
  • Reports of constant “phantom vibrations”
  • Withdrawal from friends and family
  • Constant checking and rechecking their phone regardless of where they are (i.e. at the dinner table, religious congregations, in class at school, and so forth.)
  • Using several devices at once such as television, tablet, and phone. (Researchers at the University of Sussex found that one area of the brain, called the anterior cingulate cortex, was oftentimes smaller in people and individuals who used multiple or higher numbers of electronic devices simultaneously.)

Remedy Attempts

If you think your teen’s brain is being adversely affected by smartphone overuse there are a few things you can attempt that might help. A professional psychological therapist is also recommended if your teen seems to be struggling.


The No Zone - Choose an area in your home where no one can bring any electronic device. Set up a full shelf of books, sketch pads for art, puzzles sets etc. amidst a sea of cushions and pillows (or the like). This encourages creativity and comfortability. Spend time here with the family as much as possible, and monitor technology use—or the lack of it.


Old School Meals - There used to be a corded phone attached to the wall that dare be answered during a meal back in the days before digital. Take smartphone use completely out of family meals.


Due to its infancy, smartphones and the teenage brain are a morphing phenomenon. As we learn more about how technology affects humans, hopefully more will be done to embrace or avoid it.



Amy Williams is a journalist based in Southern California. As a mother of two, she hopesAmy Williams to use her experience as a parent to help other parents raise their children to be the best that they can be. You can find Amy on Twitter and FaceBook.

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Comment by Amy Ngai on February 14, 2015 at 7:38pm

This is a very interesting read. My son is still too young to have a cell phone but it is definitely one of the concerns that my husband and I talk about constantly. I actually plan on doing a technology cleanse coming up this holiday monday and hoping to make it a tradition for all holidays. I think it's important to unplug once in a while. 

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