We’re used to hearing about addiction to drugs and other harmful substances. Does attachment to our phones and various tech devices also qualify as an addiction?
By definition, an addiction is a loss of control of the amount of use, despite adverse consequences. With tech use, those consequences often involve interference with school or professional work, lack of engagement with other people, interference with sleep, as well as loneliness, depression, anxiety and poor body image.
Dr. Ana Lembke, author of Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, spoke at the annual Lifestyle Medicine conference a few weeks ago. Dopamine is our ‘feel good’ hormone. It increases in response to chocolate, sex, nicotine, and cocaine, in that order. It’s not the ONLY messenger, but it’s the final messenger. It’s the driving force behind craving more. She described rat studies in which rats literally pushed a lever for cocaine until they collapsed from exhaustion, with the goal of replicating their initial dopamine high from it.
With repeated stimulation, repeated dopamine hits, we eventually turn DOWN our dopamine receptors, and feel WORSE than how we felt before we had our first use of cocaine, or tech, or whatever. Our craving gets even more intense, in an attempt to replicate that first high.
Until 2000, happiness correlated with the wealth of a nation. Since 2000, it’s the inverse. Richer nations have an increased incidence of anxiety, depression and suicide. I wonder if it’s related to findings that in 2021, U.S. adults spent ~8 hours per day OUTSIDE of work, on electronics. More hours of use were associated with more mental health disorders.
A recent episode of the NYTimes podcast, The Daily, highlighted how some apps have been designed to fuel increased use, particularly in young people. It focused on Meta, which owns Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, since there are over 40 States Attorneys General filing a lawsuit against it. They compare the strategies Meta uses in their apps to those of the tobacco industry. According to whistleblowers, the company had research showing that some of their features were particularly addictive, harmful to youth, made young women in particular feel worse about their bodies, allowed children under 13 to use their platform etc.
Specific features of the sites that increase that dopamine rush are the endless notifications, and the short-lived posts (Instagram, TikTok, SnapChat), so one must see it immediately or never. Every Like, every post, every notification of news, gives a dopamine hit. And there’s no logical endpoint – like an all-powerful slot machine, it’s difficult to walk away. In addition, beauty filters allow people to virtually change body parts, making people think they’re not good enough as they are. This affects young women more than others. More concrete harms include survey results showing that ¼ of young people felt bullied and almost the same percent received unwanted sexual advances, all just within the previous week.
Here are some suggestions to help decrease use if you see issues for yourself or others you care about.
- Have tech-free spaces
- Turn off unnecessary alerts.
- Have a friendly hint ready for those around you, that you’re there, hoping to converse.
- Control when you open an app – discipline yourself to do other things first, e.g., exercise, eat, complete a report…
- Schedule time for mindless scrolling, with a timer.
- Delete apps that are unnecessary and take up the most time – time that you later consider to have been ‘wasted’.
Tech can be addictive, but unlike tobacco, it does have redeeming qualities. The key is to notice whether our dopamine hit from so much use is causing pleasure or not. Over the next few days, consider this and question whether eliminating some usage would actually elevate your mood and productivity. Awareness is the first step to making changes. Let us know if you’ve found other ways to improve your experience with tech.
Lembke, Ana. Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. 2021.
The Daily podcast, 11/15/2023. A Strategy to Treat Big Tech Like Big Tobacco.