As a 21 year old who has had a smartphone for most of my life, I can firmly say I don’t do much without it. 

When I can’t track it down, I find myself with that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, my mind running through the past 15 minutes trying to figure out when it could have left my hand.

Or, if I know I’ve left it at home, accidentally abandoned on the kitchen counter in favour of my travel mug, my mind whirls with thoughts of what I’m missing and on who might be trying to call me at this exact second.

I know I’m not alone – cell phones are indispensable to 83 per cent of the global population. With over 7.51 billion phone subscriptions worldwide, there is little chance of escaping the grasp of the expensive and beloved communication tool. 

And it’s so much more than calling and texting! Personally, I like to take out digital books from the library and read them on my phone. It’s my hack for never paying late fees, since the book gets returned automatically.

Although I know I’m more productive when reading a physical book or on my ereader, I wanted to test by how much. I created a reading goal of one hour on my books app, set a timer and opened to page one.

Despite spending the entire hour on my phone, I only read for 34 minutes; barely more than half my allotted time. I kept getting distracted by notifications – I didn’t even click on them all – and switching to different apps. 

Even so, I know I use my phone less than many of my friends, who often won’t make it through a conversation without checking their device. 

Smartphones and Cognition

We’ve all heard that smartphones and social media have shrunken our attention spans. My dad used to always make jokes about me having the attention span of a goldfish – a whole nine seconds. 

But the last time Canadian attention spans were studied, in 2015, proved my dad to be generous in his assumption that I could focus for that long. The Microsoft study revealed that our attention span is actually a mere eight seconds long.

Talking to my editors here at The Health Insider, we were curious if smartphones could actually change the anatomy of the brain itself, not just how long I can maintain concentration. 

To my surprise, Taiwanese researchers recently found a potential link between smartphone use and brain size. 

Affecting adolescents more than adults, researchers linked excessive smartphone use with an overall smaller brain. The shrinkage seems to start at the back of the brain, impacting a persons impulsivity. 

Because there is also a connection between smaller brains and acting more impulsively, they concluded the changes caused by excessive phone use could possibly further contribute to a smaller brain. 

The Circadian Clock

Light has a significant impact on having a day full of energy and a good night’s sleep at the end. Light can help regulate your system and tell your body when it’s time to be alert or when you can rest easy.

A reason I commonly hear for excessive smartphone use before bed is that they can’t sleep anyways, so why not? One study suggests “insomnia is more likely a consequence rather than a cause of excessive smartphone use.”

Too much blue light before bed can cause increased difficulty falling asleep, chronic sleep deprivation, excessive daytime sleepiness, and push back waking and sleeping schedules.

To participate in life, it’s often a requirement to be up during the day; work, school, and stores have set hours they won’t change because you stayed up until five in the morning. 

The misalignment created between your social and biological clock can result in fatigue, daytime sleepiness, behavioral problems and poor academic achievement.

Mental Health

It’s beyond easy to get sucked into the world inside your phone. The constant dings/vibrations beckon and the absence of all this noise can lead to a sense of missing out.

Fear of missing out (FOMO) and overusing social media contributes to increased anxiety and depression, according to a NIH study. 

We now know that the smaller brains encouraged by smartphone use can impact our impulsivity – could it also impact mental health?

It’s interesting to note that as my generation and younger have grown up with smartphones for all or most of our lives, they have also experienced a rise in the following:

  • Depression
  • Self-reported anxiety
  • Difficulty falling/staying asleep
  • Increased perceived stress
  • Poor educational attainment
  • Overall poor mental health, wellbeing and day-to-day functioning

Don’t get me wrong, I love my phone. It’s currently sitting beside me, in my eyeline so I know if I get a text. Knowing everything I just laid out, I’m not giving up my phone and I don’t expect anyone else to either.

But we deserve to be aware of the impact cell phones can have on the brain: cognition, wellness, and size.

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