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Smartphones, addiction and distracted driving

You've probably joked with co-workers or family members, telling them they're addicted to their smartphones.

Maybe you were the only person at a table during a social gathering who wasn't looking down at his or her phone, and you suddenly realized that no one was actually socializing. Maybe you were at the movies and all you could see was the blue glow of the phone screens. Perhaps you were riding in the passenger seat of a car and you watched as the driver repeatedly checked his or her phone and even tried to send a text message.

A real danger

This last one is incredibly dangerous. Distracted driving causes thousands of accidents, injuries and deaths every year.

With that in mind, maybe you wondered why the driver would ever take the risk. No text message is worth a car accident. No Facebook notification is worth spending a month in the hospital. Why risk it?

An addiction

The answer may lie in your joke about smartphone addiction. It's not a joke after all. One study examined the brains of teenagers who were often fixated on their smartphones, and it stunningly found that their brain chemistry itself was changing. The changes were similar to those that other addictions create in the brain.

That's why the driver took the risk. He or she likely knew that checking the phone wasn't worth it at all. In a technical sense, that's easy to admit. Ask anyone if they'd read a text if it meant a car accident and hospitalization, and they'd stay they wouldn't make that trade.

However, addiction is stronger than reason. The driver couldn't help it.

Brain changes

Specifically, the study looked at the anterior cingulate cortex, and it found an increase in neurotransmitter activity. That region of the brain is the one that works with behavior reward, mood regulation and inhibition control. To study the brain, the researchers used magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). This scan is often used to look at the brain after a stroke, a brain tumor or the onset of Alzheimer's disease and mood disorders. It tracks biochemical concentrations.

Researchers did go beyond imaging and medical tests. They also gave out typical addiction questions. These asked the teens about smartphone use and its role in their social lives, daily routines, sleeping patterns, general productivity and emotions. The combination of these answers and the scans helped them determine that the teens were suffering from an actual addiction that could control their lives and create unsafe situations.

Car accidents

The study perhaps helps to show why car accidents related to distracted driving keep happening, even though people know the risks well. If you're injured in such a crash, you must know your legal rights.

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