Smartphones use can lead to a rise in cortisol, which affects the prefrontal cortex in the brain, leading to a loss of self control and destructive behaviour - like texting while driving.
Smartphones use can lead to a rise in cortisol, which affects the prefrontal cortex in the brain, leading to a loss of self control and destructive behaviour - like texting while driving.
Image: kantver/123RF

Over the course of the smartphone revolution, scientists have conducted much research into how our phones may be affecting us and their negative effects on our bodies, from our eyes to our brains.

However, many of those studies tended to focus on the smartphone’s relationship to dopamine, the chemical released in our brains that plays a role in forming habits and addictions. Scientists have found that many smartphones and apps are specifically designed to encourage the release of this chemical through constant notifications and promises of rewards — behavioural patterns similar to those triggered by addictions such as gambling. The brain effects triggered by slot machines can be found in smartphone users who obsessively check for likes, retweets, shares or app notifications. 

According to a recent report in the New York Times, there’s a chemical that smartphones also produce that we should be worried about since it poses potential risks to long-term health and survival. This chemical is called cortisol and it’s the body’s primary hormone for dealing with stress — triggered in situations where our fight-or-flight response kicks in.

It is intended to enable us to help fight back in highly stressful or life-threatening situations. It’s not good to know that seeing an anxiety inducing e-mail late at night might have the same physical effect as the sight of a polar bear charging towards you — but that’s what new studies suggest may be happening as a result of an addiction to smartphone use.

Research has shown that  the average American “spends four hours a day staring at their smartphone and keeps it within arm’s reach nearly all the time”. That figure probably applies to many other countries and the result is the same. Google observed in a report that “mobile devices loaded with social media, e-mail and news apps … [create] a constant sense of obligation, generating unintended personal stress”.

The New York Times quotes David Greenfield, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Connecticut, who warns that “cortisol levels are elevated when your phone is in sight or nearby, or when you hear or even think about it. It’s a stress response, and it feels unpleasant, and the body’s natural response is to want to check the phone to make the stress go away”.

The endless repetition of this cycle of anxiety leads to abnormal spikes in cortisol levels which pose serious risks to the body. Elevated levels of the hormone have been linked to “an increased series of health problems, including depression, obesity, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes, fertility issues, heart attack, dementia and stroke”.

As Dr Robert Lustig, emeritus professor in pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times that high levels of cortisol impair the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for decision making and rational thought. He describes the cortex as “the Jiminy Cricket [of the brain, which] … keeps us from doing stupid things”. If your “Jiminy Cricket” isn’t working, this leads to loss of self-control and doing things that may bring momentary relief but are potentially stupid and destructive — such as responding to text messages while driving, or not looking where we’re going while walking. Over-awareness of phones can also lead to conditions such as phantom vibrations, where anxiety about something just seen on the phone makes the user think the device is vibrating when isn’t.

So what to do about these potentially life-threatening, cortisol-raising smartphone side-effects? Well, if you consciously work towards curbing some of your bad smartphone habits this might help your brain and body to self-regulate the release of the hormone to acceptable levels. You can start by turning off unnecessary notifications and avoid the way various apps make you feel when you use them. If Twitter makes you mad as hell then don’t go on it all the time.

You can also take long — initially twitch-inducing but ultimately beneficial — sustained breaks from your phone. You don’t have to go all in and start with a 24-hour no-tech-use cleanse, but you can start slowly by doing things such as not taking your phone out during your lunch break, or leaving it off during dinner.

The world and smartphone companies may be making it harder and harder to introduce such self-protective timeouts, but it’s up to users to try and make the effort.  Or we might be forced to purchase phones that carry health warnings, with tech companies hiding behind that old big tobacco defence: “We told you so … eventually … so not really our problem.”