Neurological evidence surrounding phone addiction.

This is an extract from my feature article in the current edition of Cosmos magazine. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

More than three billion Earthlings have a smartphone, a device on track to have the most rapid take-up of any technology in human history, ahead of electricity, the telephone, TV and computers.

And there are plenty of reasons to think this small square of plastic, silicon and rare earth metal, which has earned sobriquets ranging from “CrackBerry” to “electronic heroin”, is as addictive as its illicit namesakes.

In South Korea an estimated 98% of teens used a smartphone in 2018, with nearly a third of children aged 10 to 19 classed as “overdependent”. Detox camps have sprung up, where kids go cold turkey on tech and get an alternative diet of counselling and face-to-face activities with peers. One child knew she had a problem when she’d been on her phone for 13 hours straight.

Across the Yellow Sea in mainland China, the issue has prompted a dramatic response from authorities. China is reported to have more than 300 internet addiction camps whose inmates – some as young as nine – can be interned behind barbed wire, often at the behest of desperate parents.

But there’s another problem with smartphone addiction. Technically, it doesn’t exist.

In 2019, the World Health Organisation added “gaming disorder” to its official list of diseases. It’s a diagnosis you can cop if, for at least 12 months, your playing is taking precedence over other stuff you should be doing – even when your work, school or relationships are going down the tube. But smartphone addiction hasn’t hit the WHO list, known as the International Classification of Diseases, Eleventh Revision (ICD-11).

There’s another problem with smartphone addiction. Technically, it doesn’t exist.

A serious sticking point is whether the phone is really just a conduit to other things – social media, gaming, pornography, gambling and shopping – that are driving the excess use. Some commentators think calling it a phone addiction is a bit like saying an alcoholic has a “bottle addiction”.

Christian Wolf, a psychiatrist at Germany’s Heidelberg University Hospital, wanted to feed hard data into the debate. He knew that addictions to alcohol or drugs are linked to telltale brain changes that reflect two key traits driving dependency. The first is what psychologists call “salience”. Put the alcoholic in front of a table laid with sundry objects, say, a laptop, some flowers and a glass of beer, and there are no prizes for guessing where their gaze will rest. That beer owns their attention.

Over time, as the constant rewards of alcohol are registered in the brain’s pleasure centres, the mere sight of the drink can bring on irresistible craving. It is a paradigm case of classical conditioning; alcohol has morphed into what some researchers call a “motivational magnet”.

This key trait of salience, in your classic substance addictions, has an inseparable companion: the shredding of any will to resist. That dynamic duo has helped crown alcohol, on some metrics, as one of the top five most addictive drugs. The big question now is this: have smartphones become the new alcohol?

Wolf and his team got down to work. One by one, they placed their subjects in an MRI scanner, each fitted with a binocular-like apparatus through which they were shown a series of pictures.

One image set comprised everyday things that wouldn’t necessarily get your heart racing – a flower, a pastoral landscape, some furniture. The other set was pure smartphone porn: a handset on a desk with a hard beam of light glinting on its flawless screen; the phone cradled in someone’s hands, apps left tantalisingly open, including social media, shopping and messenger. And for comparison, the 22 people with smartphone issues were joined in the scanner by a control group, who rated as less attached.

Wolf has an all-around air of benevolence that must be a balm to his patients, many of whom have depression, schizophrenia or degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. His tone is measured, and you get the impression he’s not prone to overstatement.

“What we see is that people who we labelled or classified as having smartphone addiction show a pattern of increased and decreased activity in very specific brain regions,” Wolf says. “So we have increased activity in parts of the brain that process salience, and decreased activity in parts of the brain that actually subserve control or executive control.”

When the phone addicts saw phone pics, their MRI findings were remarkably similar to those you see in people with substance-use disorders like alcohol or drug addiction. The heightened salience of their preferred poison is teamed, fatefully yet predictably, with a degraded ability to bring willpower to bear.  “There was nothing very surprising,” Wolf says.

One could get the feeling the result was anticlimactic for him. It wasn’t. He had, quite simply, expected it. Wolf and his team had shown that people whose smartphones are taking over their lives have the same “neural signature” as people with classic addictions.