Are Smartphones as Addictive as Drugs?

Since their introduction 10 years ago, smartphones have become a necessity many can’t live without.

December 04, 2017 Zen Vuong

Can you go a day without your phone? How about a week? If it feels unimaginable, you’re not alone. USC researchers are studying how smartphones might be rewiring our brains—and making us dependent.

“Internet addiction has some behavioral similarities to hard drug use,” says Antoine Bechara, psychology professor and neuroscientist at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “The similarities between internet and cocaine addiction really lie in those brain systems that drive you toward the reward.” That includes release of dopamine, the reward-and-pleasure neurotransmitter. (An important difference, though, is that cocaine impairs the prefrontal cortex, which leads to poor decision-making, while internet addiction doesn’t.)

“Swiping on apps is inherently rewarding due to a dopamine hit in the brain every time a new message is received,” adds Julie Albright, a psychology lecturer at USC Dornsife. “The affected area is the same ‘pleasure center’ activated by cocaine and other addictive drugs.”

Smartphone dependency is high among the young. A recent survey from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism (PDF) found that half of teens in the U.S. and Japan felt addicted to their phones. Older adults may be growing dependent as well.

Addiction expert Steve Sussman, professor of preventive medicine, psychology and social work, studies the phenomenon.“Consequences associated with smartphone addiction include lack of concentration and decreased performance at school or work; car and other accidents; possible blurred vision; sleep disturbance and financial costs,” Sussman says, noting that ongoing USC research could help develop evidence-based guidelines on treating smartphone addiction.