Smartphone dependence may have similar effects on the brain to some of those seen in opioid addiction, according to a new study.

Researchers surveying college students about technology use have found a number of worrying trends among those who overly rely on their devices – and warn the behaviour is much like any other type of substance abuse.

In addition to the neurological effects, the researchers found that people who are dependent on their phones tend to feel isolated, lonely, depressed and anxious more so than their peers, reports the Daily Mail.

"The behavioural addiction of smartphone use begins forming neurological connections in the brain in ways similar to how opioid addiction is experienced by people taking Oxycontin for pain relief – gradually," says Erik Peper, Professor of Health Education at San Francisco State University.

Advertisement

The researchers surveyed 135 students at the university, revealing a number of negative social affects among those who reported higher phone use.

The experts say loneliness may be linked to the absence of face-to-face interactions and the lack of visible body language.

And, they say students who use their phones more are constantly multi-tasking.

This, Peper says, gives the mind little time to relax, and dedicates less effort to each of the individual tasks as a person would if they'd focused on one thing at a time.

The researcher says smartphones trigger pathways in the brains once used to alert humans to dangers, but the tech industry has tapped into this to increase profits.

"More eyeballs, more clicks, more money," said Peper.

"But now we are hijacked by those same mechanisms that once protected us and allowed us to survive – for the most trivial pieces of information."

This isn't the first study to suggest smartphone dependence may, in some ways, mimic a substance addiction.

In a similar study published this year, however, researchers say there is another side to the argument.

Although smartphone overuse may seem isolating, a team from McGill University argues that our dependence on the technology likely stems from a desire to connect with other people.

Based on this, the researchers in the McGill study say we may not be addicted to smartphones after all – instead, we're addicted to social interactions.

According to the researchers, these devices tap into our basic needs as a uniquely social species.

Humans tend to seek meaning and a sense of identity through their interactions with others.

Thus, addiction to smartphones and other devices may be considered hyper-social, not anti-social, the researchers said.

But, the pace and scale at which they're used could put the brain's reward system in "overdrive", they warn.