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Teenagers are 'replacing drugs with smartphones', researchers suggest

Smoking, drinking and drug use among teenagers have more than halved over 10 years

Katie Forster
Friday 17 March 2017 10:31 GMT
Teenagers may be swapping drugs for smartphones
Teenagers may be swapping drugs for smartphones

Researchers are planning to investigate whether a drop in drug use among teenagers could be explained by smartphones’ stimulating effect on the brain.

Levels of smoking, drinking and drug use among British schoolchildren aged 11 to 15 have more than halved over the last decade, according to NHS statistics.

This is reflected in the US, where rates of teenage drinking and smoking have fallen to their lowest in 40 years – a trend some experts suggest could be driven by growing smartphone use, reported the New York Times.

Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, told the newspaper she is meeting with a group of academics next month to discuss whether entertainment and a sense of independence provided by smartphones may have contributed to the drop.

“It's extremely interesting and useful that people would investigate this,” said neuroscientist Arko Ghosh, an expert in human behaviour and smartphones at the University of Zurich.

“We can't say exactly how smartphone use affects brain, but there are interesting correlations between smartphone behaviour and brain activity,” he told The Independent.

“It feels like it's intense, and it feels different, but let's measure it and find out how different it is.”

Smartphones can provide both delayed rewards, such as receiving replies to messages sent earlier in the day, and instantaneous rewards, like when playing games, said Dr Ghosh.

“Everything has to do with your reward system in some way,” he said, adding it was still too early to attribute specific reward pathways, such as those associated with drug-taking, to smartphone use.

Public health campaigns warning of the dangers of drug-taking are also possible contributing factors to the widespread decline in the number of teenagers experimenting with drugs.

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A quarter of US teenagers aged 13 to 17 say they are online “almost constantly,” and nearly three quarters have access to a smartphone, according to a 2015 Pew Research Centre report.

And around 40 per cent of young people in Britain say they check their phones after they have gone to bed, according to a recent survey by Digital Awareness UK.

Siliva Martins, an associate professor at Columbia University specialising in substance abuse, told the New York Times the theory was unproven but “highly plausible”.

Playing video games and using social media “fulfills the necessity of sensation seeking, their need to seek novel activity”, she said, adding: “Teens can get literally high when playing these games.”

And smartphones can function as a “portable dopamine pump”, David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, also told the newspaper.

Between 2003 and 2013, the rate of alcohol drinking among children in England aged 11 to 15 dropped from 25 per cent to nine per cent, while cigarette smoking fell from nine per cent to three per cent.

The Health and Social Care Information Centre survey of more than 5,000 schoolchildren found six per cent of pupils used drugs in 2013 – half the level reported in 2003.

Dr Ghosh said his research had shown the average person touches their smartphone around 3000 times a day.

Smartphone use “does reflect certain instrinsic aspects of our brain function, like how the brain controls the hand,” he said. “Individuals who use their phone more have a higher brain activity in response to being touched on the hand.”

“The brain seems to be adapted to the way you're using your phone today,” he added.

“Whether your phone has changed your brain, or whether it's causing you to use your phone in a different way – that's what we're trying to figure out.”

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