Have smartphones made people stupid?

Why smartphones make you sick and stupid

For most people, the cell phone has become a constant companion. At home, in the subway, in restaurants and even during work hours, many find it increasingly difficult to keep their hands off their smartphones. It can't hurt to check out the latest notifications quickly, right?

Some scientists disagree. Experts warn that increased smartphone use will chronically increase the cortisol level in the body. "Your cortisol levels go up when you hear or even think you hear your phone within sight or nearby," said David Greenfield, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and founder of the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, in the "New York Times".

Constant alert

The cell phone does not act as a physical, but as an emotional stress factor. We are under constant pressure not to miss anything. "It's a stress response that feels uncomfortable, and the body's natural response is to pick up a cell phone to end that stressful state," explains Greenfield.

From an evolutionary point of view, cortisol is an important stress hormone that increases blood pressure and heart rate in order to prepare the body for fight or flight in an emergency. Since we should neither fight our mobile phone nor run away from it, the increased secretion of cortisol in this case is not a desirable and appropriate physiological response.

In particular, the pressure of having to reply to new messages immediately is a problem for many people. A glance at the cell phone leads to a brief phase of relaxation, which is soon followed by the next wave of stress. In order to reduce the unrest, the smartphone is used again - by being forced not to miss any news, the vicious circle starts all over again. The Austrian Institute for Addiction Prevention also describes the fear of missing out on news ("Fear of missing out") as one of the main stress factors on its information page on smartphone addiction.

What exactly is suffering

Chronically elevated cortisol levels are associated with a variety of diseases. These include obesity, type II diabetes and high blood pressure as well as an increased risk of stroke and heart attack. "Every chronic illness that we know is made worse by stress. Our cell phones definitely contribute to it," says US endocrinologist Robert Lustig.

In addition to the dangerous long-term effects of an increased stress level, the increased cortisol level can also have direct effects on our brain. The cortisol acts on the so-called prefrontal cortex. This brain area is particularly active when planning and solving problems. If the prefrontal cortex is compromised, we have less self-control and would make more stupid decisions, explains Lustig.

Take time out

How can you actively reduce cell phone stress in order to protect yourself from the negative consequences? Bruce McEwen, director of the Neuroendocrinology Laboratory at Rockefeller University, notes that it is possible to break the vicious cycle of stress and train the brain to reduce stress responses. In order to achieve this, it can be helpful to deactivate all unimportant notifications on the smartphone and, if possible, to find the apps that hold the greatest potential for stress for you. Self-reflection is necessary here to find out which applications really make the cell phone a source of stress.

The next thing is self-discipline. It makes most sense to remove the corresponding apps from the phone or at least to hide them in a separate folder so as not to be tempted to use them. Regular breaks, when you don't use your mobile phone at all, can also help you relax and break out of the spiral of stress. This form of the "digital diet" is also recommended in a study by the "Saferinternet" platform.

Another important factor in staying healthy is getting enough sleep. It takes seven to eight hours to keep our cortisol levels within reasonable limits, according to McEwan. Otherwise the body is even more susceptible to stress and stress-related illnesses. (red, July 12, 2019)