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Health Team

Psychologist: Smartphones affect the brain in the same way as addiction

Posted May 17, 2018 5:39 p.m. EDT
Updated May 17, 2018 6:00 p.m. EDT

The constant intrusions from devices, with alerts for emails and messages, come morning noon and night and may be affecting the brain’s chemistry.

“There’s this phenomenon they call ‘switch cost,’ that when there’s an interruption, we switch away from the task that we’re at and then we have to come on back,” said Dr. Scott Bea, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic. “We think it interrupts our efficiency with our brains by about 40 percent. Our nose is always getting off the grindstone, then we have to reorient ourselves.”

Bea said technology has put our brains on high alert most of the time as people wait for the next notification. When a notification comes in, people get little surges of the stress hormone, cortisol, their heart rate increases, their hands sweat and their muscles get a little tight.

Bea said that if, by chance, people are unable to check their phones immediately, those feelings of anxiety can last until they’re able to look at the phone.

He said that technology can also influence brains in the same way as addiction. When people gratify the urge to check the alert, they reward their brain and can become addicted to the reward and continue to repeat the behavior.

Bea said that keeping productivity from becoming a victim of your phone takes discipline and, while it’s important to be able to reduce the level of arousal that phones produce, it involves creating a new habit, which takes time.

“Initially, when you start trying to stay away from the technology, or confine it, you’ll be a little uncomfortable. You’ll have that fear of missing out or a little anxiety that something’s getting past you, but with practice your brain can get used to it,” he said.

WRAL’s Dr. Allen Mask said it’s important for people to try and disconnect from their work phones when possible to help the brain distinguish between work and home and keep stress levels to a minimum.