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Smartphones and Brain Health

Posted 3/23/2017 by UHBlog

Concerned constant smartphone use may be affecting your well-being? Talk to us.

Smartphones and Brain Health

There’s no doubt smartphones make life easier. The same small device that allows us to call in a pizza order can also guide us to an unfamiliar destination, connect us with childhood friends, store a grocery list, entertain us with a song and alert us when a stock rises or falls.

But does convenience come at a price?

“For some people, smartphones are like a digital crack,” says neuropsychiatrist Brian Appleby, MD. “(People) struggle with doing nothing. You’re in line at the grocery store and everyone takes out their smartphones, but sometimes your brain just needs to sit idle. If you don’t do that sometimes, you’ll constantly feel the need to be stimulated and that’s not good.”

Although there is much discussion about how excessive smartphone use may affect the brain, Dr. Appleby says “bona fide” research is just beginning. Many past studies, he says, were commissioned by companies with a stake in the technology industry and results may be more speculative than scientific.

Dr. Appleby believes smartphone use can have positive and negative effects on the brain, depending on how and how often a person uses the device.

Among the pros and cons are:

  • PRO: Aids memory. Critics say reliance on search engines and digital phone books decreases our capacity to remember information, including phone numbers. But Dr. Appleby says accessing information on a smartphone isn’t much different than looking up data in a book.
    “You have access to put your own information wherever you want it,” he says. “It’s been done in the past with books and the printed word. In a way, smartphones could help our memory because we have access to more information.”
  • PRO: Stimulates healthy habits. Fitness tracker apps encourage many smartphone users to set – and adhere to – exercise goals, which in turn promotes overall physical and psychological health. Likewise, using smartphones to play music may motivate individuals to stick with a workout long enough for mood-boosting endorphins to kick in.
  • CON: Decreases concentration. Studies show workers abandon tasks and take several minutes to return to productive work every time their cellphone pings. Frequent distractions also impair the ability to live in the moment and make strong memories.
  • CON: Diminishes socialization. Smartphones make it easy to connect digitally rather than in person.
    “But you need face-to-face interaction to stimulate certain areas of the brain,” Dr. Appleby says.
  • CON: (Indirectly) hinders critical thinking. “Googling information and taking it at face value is not necessarily a problem of the smartphone itself, but is more a reflection of not thinking critically,” he says. “Using the smartphone – as ubiquitous as it has become in our society – may make it more likely for us to not think critically.”
  • CON: Interrupts sleep. Good-quality sleep is essential for maintaining good brain function and a consistent lack of shuteye could contribute to conditions such as depression and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Middle-of-the-night pings can disrupt sleep as can the light emitted from cellphones.
    “Having that light in your face prior to going to bed affects your circadian rhythm, which affects the quantity and quality of your sleep,” Dr. Appleby says.
  • CON: Increases stress. The pressure to respond immediately to every text can cause anxiety.

Dr. Appleby suggests decreasing the potential risks associated with excessive smartphone use by:

  1. Turning off unnecessary notifications. “You don’t need to know every time someone likes your Instagram post,” he says. “It affects your mental health.”
  2. Setting your phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode at night.
  3. Limiting phone use to a period that allows you to participate in your own life.

“Use your smartphone as a tool,” Dr. Appleby says. “If Facebook is driving your social interaction and you’re not necessarily spending time with actual people, then you’re spending too much time on it. You need to monitor the amount of time and the kind of impact it’s having on your life and why.”

Brian Appleby, MD is a neuropsychiatrist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. You can request an appointment with Dr. Appleby or any other doctor online.

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