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The Digital Tug of War: Is Screen Time Turning Us into Dopamine Addicts?

Do you often catch yourself ‘doom scrolling’? You know, the endless loop of swiping through social media, news feeds, videos? Why does this happen and how can you reclaim your time and focus? Smartphones and social media platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok are turning us into dopamine addicts. These platforms use the same neural circuits that substances like cocaine and behaviours like gambling especially poker machines do - the dopaminergic reward pathway - to keep us hooked. When your alarm goes off, you immediately open Facebook and check your messages. While eating lunch, you scroll through Instagram. After work, you watch TV while scrolling through TikTok. Eventually, you (hopefully) realise you are spending a lot of time on your phone, yet you feel like you have no time for what really matters. This isn’t accidental, it’s by design. 

Despite our desire to spend less time on our phones, we still get sucked in. Why? 

Dopamine and the Reward System

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger in the brain, linked with the brain's reward system. It gets released when we are experiencing something pleasurable - like eating a delicious meal, after we exercise, when we achieve a goal, after we see our friends, or when we have sex. Dopamine is released in many different areas of the brain, and it motivates us to repeat behaviours that bring us pleasure. The brain areas where dopamine is released are key to learning, habit formation, and addiction. 

Not to get too sciency, but these reward pathways strengthen the link between a specific stimulus or behaviour and the pleasurable reward that follows. Each time a behaviour leads to a reward, these connections become stronger. We keep coming back to social media because our brain finds positive social experiences more rewarding and accessible than other activities, like exercising or socialising in person. So, instead of engaging in activities that provide genuine dopamine, it becomes easier to get that quick dopamine surge from our phones, which are always within reach. However, this convenience can make us overlook the importance of seeking out real, fulfilling experiences that naturally boost dopamine levels.

Social media releases dopamine through several mechanisms: when we get a new notification, receive likes on our posts, watch funny videos, and engage in general social interactions, creating a cycle of reward and reinforcement that keeps us coming back for more.

For example, watching a funny video amidst otherwise boring content that you are swiping through triggers enough dopamine to keep you scrolling, searching for the next dopamine hit. The repeated use of the behaviour (in this case social media use) over time brings us below our baseline dopamine level into a dopamine deficient state - where you are now operating below your normal levels of dopamine. 

How to Break the Habit 

Dr Anna Lembke, the author of ‘Dopamine Nation’, provides insight into managing our access to high-reward, high-dopamine stimuli in our modern-day world and practical strategies to overcome overindulgence or addiction - through abstaining, maintaining, and seeking out pain.  

  • Abstain - “Dopamine Detox”: Dr. Lembke highlights that we need distance to see the impact it is having on our lives, moods, and relationships. Four weeks is generally recommended to reset your reward pathway, however, if this is out of reach, try doing one week, a couple of days, or even 24 hours. 

  • Maintain: Creating a Healthy Relationship with Technology: Re-enter a balanced use of social media. This looks like establishing boundaries and cultivating the discipline it takes to stick with them. Keep your phone out of your room while working, set and adhere to screen time limits, or avoid phone use after a certain hour. Once you have abstained, you can see the time spent on your phone and where you most get pulled in - is it while you’re waiting in the car for someone? after you’ve had a shower? when you're eating dinner? Once you acknowledge where your time is spent scrolling, create a boundary. 

  • Seek out Pain: Chase Real Dopamine: Things like exercise, ice baths, fasting, meditation, prayer, learning something new, working towards a goal - these types of ‘hard’ activities are a healthy way to restore our dopamine levels and our reward system by delaying gratification and providing sustained dopamine release. With these types of activities, dopamine remains stable and we don’t experience a crash or enter into a deficit state.

We are wired for connection, and our social media use reflects that. We are engaging within a social world. But, we cannot gain what it is that we are seeking from these devices. The immediate gratification we get impacts our ability to do hard things. 

By understanding how dopamine affects our behaviour and adopting strategies to manage our technology use, we can reclaim our focus and engage in more fulfilling activities. Balance is key - it's about enjoying the benefits of technology and at the same time not feeling sucked into a dopamine-seeking spiral. If you want to dive into breaking the habit more, the YouTube video linked below by Dr.Lembke is a great starting point. 

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