SINGAPORE: Internet- and smartphone-addicted teenagers may have chemical imbalances in the brain that are similar to people experiencing depression and anxiety, said South Korean researchers.
The research found that smartphone-addicted teens have an abundance of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain's emotional control centre, according to lead study author Hyung Suk Seo, a professor of neuroradiology at Korea University in Seoul, who presented at the Radiological Society of North America's annual meeting in Chicago on Nov 30.
GABA is found in everyone's brain, but too much of the neurotransmitter in the wrong areas can have mentally dulling effects.
In a pilot study by think-tank DQ Institute and the Nanyang Technological University conducted in April, children as young as 12 years old spend almost 46 hours a week - or over 6.5 hours daily - on a gadget. The same study also found nine-year-olds spending over 24 hours a week, or about 3.5 hours daily, doing the same.
Internet addiction, as defined by the American Psychiatric Association, is an excessive use of the Internet that impairs everyday life, sleep and relationships. Checking email first thing in the morning or spending an hour scrolling though Instagram after work does not signify an Internet addiction.
The teenagers whose test scores indicated an addiction tended to say that their Internet and smartphone use interfered with their daily routines, social lives, sleep and productivity. These teenagers also had significantly higher scores in depression, anxiety, insomnia and impulsiveness than the control group.
However, due to the study’s small sample size (19 Internet-addicted and 19 non-Internet addicted teens participated), it may be too early to link the teenagers’ chemical imbalances to anxiety and depression, said Max Wintermark, a professor of radiology and the chief of neuroradiology at Stanford University, who was not involved in the study.
Further testing on a larger group of people is needed, he said in an online Live Science article.
The good news is, the chemical imbalance is reversible using cognitive behavioural therapy. This was noted in 12 of the Internet-addicted teens who went through the therapy for nine weeks. According to the researchers, those teens did weekly 75-minute sessions of mindfulness exercises, including recognising Internet impulses, finding alternative activities, and expressing emotions.
"With appropriate intervention, the teens were able to basically correct those chemical changes" in their brains, said Prof Wintermark. "That's the part of the study I find most interesting. It shows there's hope."