Dopamine is the main chemical involved in addiction. It’s the response our body gives when we engage in a rewarding experience– like good food, meeting new people, a great song, anything that gives you that happy hit– and keeps you wanting to come back for more.
In Dopamine Nation, Anna Lembke discusses how, in the modern age, we are vulnerable to dopamine-associated addiction. According to Lembke, the addictive subject of choice isn’t just alcohol or drugs– it’s the internet and social media.
Humans are wired for connection. It helped us form tribes that safely moved together, to care for our young, to essentially keep us alive. So we’re hardwired to receive that dopamine hit as an incentive to create more relationships with those around us.
But what happens when most of that is done digitally?
We end up teetering close to the edge of overconsumption. When we log onto the internet, but especially social media, we get an insane flood of dopamine to the brain (similar to heroin or alcohol). We’re stimulated by the new images, 30-second videos, things whizzing and moving past our eyes at an insane speed. So of course we keep coming back for more with a hit like that. The problem is when we log off: all that dopamine empties out and we’re left feeling, well, kinda crappy.
Then there's novelty. Dopamine is triggered by our brain's search-and-explore functions, telling us, "Hey, pay attention to this, something new has come along." [X]
Obviously, everything is in moderation, to an extent. Don’t feel awful for indulging in a bit of social media scrolling, checking in on family members, or liking that cute picture of a dog. However, our brains were never equipped to handle the onslaught of information we can receive. So, there’s no shame in using social media, but try to notice when it starts to become too much.
Here are some signs that you may be overusing social media:
Anxiety, agitation, or anger when you cannot check social media.
Interrupt conversations to check social media.
Lie to others about how much time is spent online.
Withdraw from family and friends.
Lose interest in other activities.
Neglect school or work in favor of social media.
Experience negative impacts on your personal or professional life.
Feel stressed that your life is lacking.
So, not only can people become just plain addicted to social media, but it’s quite apparent that it can impact our day-to-day life. From social media anxiety to FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) to constantly comparing ourselves to others (and never feeling like we measure up) to doomscrolling-- social media has more impact than we may see on the surface.
There is also something to be said about missing out on that in-person connection. That feel-good hit when we actually sit down with someone, face-to-face, and have a genuine connection. The tones, mannerisms, body language— everything helps to make us really feel that connection. And we seem to be missing out on that “realness” sometimes.
So what can we do to help curb that addiction
and make us a little less reliant on social media?
Turn off those notifications. Filter out any unnecessary pings, pop-ups, etc. The less you allow yourself to see, the less you’ll feel like you’re missing out if you don’t check that notification right this second.
Purge. Does Instagram make you feel awful? Do you actually have a use for your Facebook or are you just on it to check in with your family once every couple of months? How many emails are you subscribed to that you don’t really care about? It’s a good idea to do a little social media spring cleaning every once and a while to get rid of things you really don’t need.
Monitor your time spent. Most phones have settings to monitor the amount of screen time you consume. Whether you do it by app (getting stuck way too long on TikTok? We’re all a little guilty) or set your phone to automatically go on Do Not Disturb at a certain point in the day, whatever works for you. Actively consuming less will make you want it less.
Go totally off-grid. When was the last time you went a full day without your phone? Did it make you anxious? Did you notice anything? How did you feel by the end of the day? If you are addicted to your phone, it may be difficult to do this one at first.
Whether social media is “good” or “bad” for us is a complex question. While it helps us connect, grow business platforms, and learn new things (hey, you’re reading this on the internet right now!), it can also become “too much of a good thing” and lead to addiction or the darker parts of the web.
We need to notice how much of it we’re consuming, how it’s making us feel, and change it up when it starts to become too much.