Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time - Science in the News (2022)

by Trevor Haynes
figures by Rebecca Clements

“I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. He was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained. In Palihapitiya’s talk, he highlighted something most of us know but few really appreciate: smartphones and the social media platforms they support are turning us into bona fide addicts. While it’s easy to dismiss this claim as hyperbole, platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible. Taking a closer look at the underlying science may give you pause the next time you feel your pocket buzz.

Never Alone

If you’ve ever misplaced your phone, you may have experienced a mild state of panic until it’s been found. About 73% of people claim to experience this unique flavor of anxiety, which makes sense when you consider that adults in the US spend an average of 2-4 hours per day tapping, typing, and swiping on their devices—that adds up to over 2,600 daily touches. Most of us have become so intimately entwined with our digital lives that we sometimes feel our phones vibrating in our pockets when they aren’t even there.

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While there is nothing inherently addictive about smartphones themselves, the true drivers of our attachments to these devices are the hyper-social environments they provide. Thanks to the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others, smartphones allow us to carry immense social environments in our pockets through every waking moment of our lives. Though humans have evolved to be social—a key feature to our success as a species—the social structures in which we thrive tend to contain about 150 individuals. This number is orders of magnitude smaller than the 2 billion potential connections we carry around in our pockets today. There is no doubt that smartphones provide immense benefit to society, but their cost is becoming more and more apparent. Studies are beginning to show links between smartphone usage and increased levels of anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, and increased risk of car injury or death. Many of us wish we spent less time on our phones but find it incredibly difficult to disconnect. Why are our smartphones so hard to ignore?

The Levers in Our Brains – Dopamine and social reward

Dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that plays a starring role in motivating behavior. It gets released when we take a bite of delicious food, when we have sex, after we exercise, and, importantly, when we have successful social interactions. In an evolutionary context, it rewards us for beneficial behaviors and motivates us to repeat them.

The human brain contains four major dopamine “pathways,”or connections between different parts of the brain that act as highways for chemical messages called neurotransmitters. Each pathway has its own associated cognitive and motor (movement) processes. Three of these pathways—the mesocortical, mesolimbic, and nigrostriatal pathways—are considered our “reward pathways” and have been shown to be dysfunctional in most cases of addiction. They are responsible for the release of dopamine in various parts of the brain, which shapes the activity of those areas. The fourth, the tuberoinfundibular pathway, regulates the release of a hormone called prolactin that is required for milk production.

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While the reward pathways (Figure 1) are distinct in their anatomical organization, all three become active when anticipating or experiencing rewarding events. In particular, they reinforce the association between a particular stimulus or sequence of behaviors and the feel-good reward that follows. Every time a response to a stimulus results in a reward, these associations become stronger through a process called long-term potentiation. This process strengthensfrequently used connections between brain cells called neurons by increasing the intensity at which they respond to particular stimuli.

Although not as intense as hit of cocaine, positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli—laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones—activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways. Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.

The Hands that Pull – Reward prediction errors and variable reward schedules

Because most social media platforms are free, they rely on revenue from advertisers to make a profit. This system works for everyone involved at first glance, but it has created an arms race for your attention and time. Ultimately, the winners of this arms race will be those who best use their product to exploit the features of the brain’s reward systems.

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Reward prediction errors

Research in reward learning and addiction have recently focused on a feature of our dopamine neurons called reward prediction error (RPE) encoding. These prediction errors serve as dopamine-mediated feedback signals in our brains (Figure 2). This neurological feature is something casino owners have used to their advantage for years. If you’ve ever played slots, you’ll have experienced the intense anticipation while those wheels are turning—the moments between the lever pull and the outcome provide time for our dopamine neurons to increase their activity, creating a rewarding feeling just by playing the game. It would be no fun otherwise. But as negative outcomes accumulate, the loss of dopamine activity encourages us to disengage. Thus, a balance between positive and negative outcomes must be maintained in order to keep our brains engaged.

Variable reward schedules

How do social media apps take advantage of this dopamine-driven learning strategy? Similar to slot machines, many apps implement a reward pattern optimized to keep you engaged as much as possible. Variable reward schedules were introduced by psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s. In his experiments, he found that mice respond most frequently to reward-associated stimuli when the reward was administered after a varying number of responses, precluding the animal’s ability to predict when they would be rewarded. Humans are no different; if we perceive a reward to be delivered at random, and if checking for the reward comes at little cost, we end up checking habitually (e.g. gambling addiction). If you pay attention, you might find yourself checking your phone at the slightest feeling of boredom, purely out of habit. Programmers work very hard behind the screens to keep you doing exactly that.

The Battle for Your Time

If you’ve been a Facebook user for more than a few years, you’ve probably noticed that the site has been expanding its criteria for notifications. When you first join Facebook, your notification center revolves around the initial set of connections you make, creating that crucial link between notification and social reward. But as you use Facebook more and begin interacting with various groups, events, and artists, that notification center will also become more active. After a while, you’ll be able to open the app at any time and reasonably expect to be rewarded. When paired with the low cost of checking your phone, you have a pretty strong incentive to check in whenever you can.

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Other examples highlight a more deliberate effort to monopolize your time. Consider Instagram’s implementation of a variable-ratio reward schedule. As explained in this 60 Minutes interview, Instagram’s notification algorithms will sometimes withhold “likes” on your photos to deliver them in larger bursts. So when you make your post, you may be disappointed to find less responses than you expected, only to receive them in a larger bunch later on. Your dopamine centers have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond robustly to the sudden influx of social appraisal. This use of a variable reward schedule takes advantage of our dopamine-driven desire for social validation, and it optimizes the balance of negative and positive feedback signals until we’ve become habitual users.

Question Your Habits

Smartphones and social media apps aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, so it is up to us as the users to decide how much of our time we want to dedicate to them. Unless the advertisement-based profit model changes, companies like Facebook will continue to do everything they can to keep your eyes glued to the screen as often as possible. And by using algorithms to leverage our dopamine-driven reward circuitry, they stack the cards—and our brains—against us. But if you want to spend less time on your phone, there are a variety strategies to achieve success. Doing things like disabling your notifications for social media apps and keeping your display in black and white will reduce your phone’s ability to grab and hold your attention. Above all, mindful use of the technology is the best tool you have. So the next time you pick up your phone to check Facebook, you might ask yourself, “Is this really worth my time?”

Trevor Haynes is a research technician in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.

(Video) Why are smartphones so highly addictive?

For more information:

  • Tipsfor building a healthier relationship with your phone
  • A list of stories from NPR about smartphone addiction
  • A high-level primer on dopamine and how it affects your brain, body, and mood
  • An updated overview of trends in screen addiction, including the impact of COVID-19

FAQs

How do phones affect dopamine? ›

Countless studies have shown that phone activity causes the release of dopamine in our brains, making us feel aroused, motivated, and happy.

Do cell phones release dopamine? ›

When we check our phones, our brains release a small amount of dopamine,” explains Buttimer. “Dopamine motivates us to take action and each time we hear a notification, we check our device.

How does social media affect dopamine? ›

Social media has a reinforcing nature. Using it activates the brain's reward center by releasing dopamine, a “feel-good chemical” linked to pleasurable activities such as sex, food, and social interaction.

What does being on your phone all the time do to your brain? ›

Research shows this overreliance on your smartphone can lead to mental laziness. “If you give people the ability to store information remotely, outside of their brain, they become more dependent on that, which actually can have a negative effect on people's memory,” Dr.

What increases dopamine? ›

Getting enough sleep, exercising, listening to music, meditating, and spending time in the sun can all boost dopamine levels. Overall, a balanced diet and lifestyle can go a long way in increasing your body's natural production of dopamine and helping your brain function at its best.

What are the symptoms of high dopamine? ›

Having too much dopamine — or too much dopamine concentrated in some parts of the brain and not enough in other parts — is linked to being more competitive, aggressive and having poor impulse control. It can lead to conditions that include ADHD, binge eating, addiction and gambling.

What drugs release dopamine in the brain? ›

Every substance has slightly different effects on the brain, but all addictive drugs, including alcohol, opioids, and cocaine, produce a pleasurable surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia; neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells.

Why is dopamine detox so hard? ›

A true “dopamine detox” is impossible because the brain continues to produce dopamine all the time. However, refraining from activities that stem from compulsion and impulse may prove beneficial for short periods of time.

Does texting release dopamine? ›

Turns out, text messaging creates a “dopamine loop” in our brains, which is why we just can't resist those little bells and vibrations. Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical that motivates us to seek out what we want, and then increases when we receive the instant gratification of the desire.

Does dopamine make you happy? ›

How does dopamine make someone feel happy? Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone. It gives you a sense of pleasure. It also gives you the motivation to do something when you're feeling pleasure.

How long does it take to break a dopamine addiction? ›

Many medical professionals suggest ninety days as a general estimate for dopamine recovery. However, the damage from drugs can last longer, requiring a year or longer for dopamine levels and brain cells to recover.

Why is dopamine so addictive? ›

Myth: You can be addicted to dopamine

This release causes your brain to focus more of its attention on the experience. As a result, you're left with a strong memory of the pleasure you felt. This strong memory can prompt you to make an effort to experience it again by using drugs or seeking out certain experiences.

How are smartphones affecting our life? ›

Furthermore, smartphone addiction can lead to depression, stress, anxiety, and lack of social interaction in different people. Besides, extreme use of the smartphone can waste time. For instance, most of the smartphone owners spend many hours on social media and playing different games.

What are the positive and negative effects of mobile phone? ›

  • Introduction. Mobile phone occupies a significant place in everyone's life. ...
  • Better Communication. ...
  • Keeps people organized. ...
  • Easy execution of daily chores. ...
  • Ensure Hassle -free Travel. ...
  • Assist in emergencies. ...
  • Assists in academics and skill development. ...
  • Negatively impact academics.

How smartphones affect our health? ›

Too much time looking down at your phone can strain your neck muscles and cause tightness or spasms. You might even get nerve pain that goes to your back, or to your shoulder and down your arm. Take breaks at least every 20 minutes to stretch and arch your back.

What is the fastest way to increase dopamine? ›

How to Increase Dopamine Naturally
  1. Avoid overindulging in alcohol or recreational drug use. ...
  2. Maintaining a healthy diet can increase dopamine levels. ...
  3. Avoid junk food. ...
  4. Exercise regularly to increase dopamine. ...
  5. Spend time outside. ...
  6. Practice healthy sleep habits. ...
  7. Engage in healthy, pleasurable activities. ...
  8. Meditate or practice yoga.

What is the best supplement to increase dopamine? ›

Along with eating a balanced diet, many possible supplements may help boost dopamine levels, including probiotics, fish oil, vitamin D, magnesium, ginkgo and ginseng. This, in turn, could help improve brain function and mental health.

How can I check my dopamine levels? ›

There is no reliable way to directly measure the levels of dopamine in a person's brain, but there are some indirect ways. Some blood tests measure the levels of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. However, these do not represent the levels of neurotransmitters in the nervous system itself.

Can dopamine make you angry? ›

Dopamine hyperactivity in brain regions linked to reward-related motivation, such as the nucleus accumbens (NCC) and prefrontal cortex, also leads to increases in impulsive and aggressive behavior (see reviews by Everitt & Robbins, 2000; Friedel, 2004).

What is the chemical that makes you happy? ›

When it comes to happiness, in particular, the primary signaling chemicals include: Serotonin. Dopamine. Endorphins.

Does caffeine increase dopamine? ›

Caffeine, the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world, is used to promote wakefulness and enhance alertness. Like other wake-promoting drugs (stimulants and modafinil), caffeine enhances dopamine (DA) signaling in the brain, which it does predominantly by antagonizing adenosine A2A receptors (A2AR).

How does dopamine affect behavior? ›

Dopamine appears to be involved both in goal-directed and motor behavior. On the inside, dopamine-producing neurons extend into neighboring motivational and motor parts of the brain. And on the outside, when scientists block dopamine release, rewards such as food, sex and cocaine stop reinforcing behavior.

Does CBD increase dopamine? ›

Cannabinoids increase tonic and phasic dopamine release.

Does fasting increase dopamine? ›

A recent review of impacts of fasting on mood studies reported that modified fasting in humans during the first 7 days increases the plasma levels of dopamine and some other neurotransmitters.

How can I trick my brain to do hard things? ›

How I Tricked My Brain To Like Doing Hard Things (dopamine detox)

Can you live without dopamine? ›

Without dopamine, our bodies and brains simply wouldn't work. We'd all be catatonic. Dopamine is not a “reward” chemical. That's not actually the way our body uses it.

What Sexting does to your brain? ›

According to experts, the neurochemical ripples sexting creates in the human brain may also have something to do with its unwavering popularity. Sexting ignites dopamine, the “happy hormone,” and oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” in the human brain — essentially inducing feelings we love, and perhaps, even crave.

How does phone addiction affect mental health? ›

The majority of those who scored high on the fear of missing out tend to overuse their phones. Similarly, these individuals score high on anxiety and depression scales. That is because excessive use of smartphones interferes with social activities and therefore increases depression.

Why are we so addicted to our phones? ›

The truth is that every time you get a new phone notification, it gives you a mini “high” that is similar to your brain on cocaine. A hit of dopamine in the brain releases feel-good chemicals into your body, which reinforces the behavior.

What is the sad hormone? ›

Serotonin. Serotonin is another hormone that affects mood, appetite and sleep. It is also a neurotransmitter, which means that it transmits messages between nerve cells. Fewer hours of sunlight means that less serotonin is produced. If you have SAD, your serotonin levels may be lower than average during the winter.

What are the 4 happy chemicals? ›

The four main happiness chemicals are serotonin, dopamine, endorphins and oxytocin. Each one has an impact on happiness, with effects ranging from boosting pleasure and satisfaction to controlling stress and anxiety.

What's the opposite of dopamine? ›

This may lead to impulsive behavior due to the role that dopamine plays in reward-seeking behavior. Dopamine and serotonin also have opposite effects on appetite. While serotonin suppresses it, low levels of dopamine can stimulate hunger. Serotonin also inhibits impulsive behavior.

What antidepressant increases dopamine? ›

Bupropion is unique among antidepressants as an inhibitor of dopamine reuptake, leading to increased dopamine levels in the synapse.

How do I reset my brain reward system? ›

Things You Can Do to Reset Your Brain's Dopamine Levels
  1. Create exciting daily routines. Incorporate fun activities into your daily routine, even if they are mindless activities. ...
  2. Focus on perfecting your sleep schedule. ...
  3. Improve your diet. ...
  4. Exercise. ...
  5. Practice mindfulness. ...
  6. Listen to music.
24 Apr 2022

How long does it take to restore dopamine levels? ›

Normal, healthy dopamine production depends on a wide variety of factors, but many medical professionals believe that your brain's dopamine production will return to pre-substance misuse levels over a period of 90 days.

Is dopamine a drug? ›

Dopamine is a prescription medicine used to treat the symptoms of low blood pressure, and low cardiac output and improves blood flow to the kidneys. Dopamine may be used alone or with other medications. Dopamine belongs to a class of drugs called Inotropic Agents.

How do you increase dopamine without alcohol? ›

Nine natural ways to boost dopamine levels… and increase resistance to drugs and alcohol
  1. Eating tyrosine-rich foods increases dopamine. ...
  2. Exercising. ...
  3. Spending more time outdoors. ...
  4. Petting an animal. ...
  5. Sleeping.
23 Jan 2018

Is dopamine a good thing? ›

Dopamine plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It's a big part of our unique human ability to think and plan. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting. Your body spreads it along four major pathways in the brain.

Does texting release dopamine? ›

Turns out, text messaging creates a “dopamine loop” in our brains, which is why we just can't resist those little bells and vibrations. Dopamine is the “feel good” chemical that motivates us to seek out what we want, and then increases when we receive the instant gratification of the desire.

Does social media deplete dopamine? ›

The 'dopamine loop'

Using social media can lead to physical and psychological addiction because it triggers the brain's reward system to release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. Dopamine is actually a neurotransmitter (a chemical messenger between neurons) involved in neurological and physiological functioning.

How do you reset your dopamine levels? ›

Things You Can Do to Reset Your Brain's Dopamine Levels
  1. Create exciting daily routines. Incorporate fun activities into your daily routine, even if they are mindless activities. ...
  2. Focus on perfecting your sleep schedule. ...
  3. Improve your diet. ...
  4. Exercise. ...
  5. Practice mindfulness. ...
  6. Listen to music.
24 Apr 2022

Does social interaction release dopamine? ›

It has been known that there is dopamine release involved in social behavior, though how this comes about has been elusive. The answer has to do with oxytocin – the “love hormone.”

What Sexting does to your brain? ›

According to experts, the neurochemical ripples sexting creates in the human brain may also have something to do with its unwavering popularity. Sexting ignites dopamine, the “happy hormone,” and oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” in the human brain — essentially inducing feelings we love, and perhaps, even crave.

How does phone addiction affect mental health? ›

The majority of those who scored high on the fear of missing out tend to overuse their phones. Similarly, these individuals score high on anxiety and depression scales. That is because excessive use of smartphones interferes with social activities and therefore increases depression.

Does dopamine make you happy? ›

How does dopamine make someone feel happy? Dopamine is known as the “feel-good” hormone. It gives you a sense of pleasure. It also gives you the motivation to do something when you're feeling pleasure.

What is the fastest way to increase dopamine? ›

How to Increase Dopamine Naturally
  1. Avoid overindulging in alcohol or recreational drug use. ...
  2. Maintaining a healthy diet can increase dopamine levels. ...
  3. Avoid junk food. ...
  4. Exercise regularly to increase dopamine. ...
  5. Spend time outside. ...
  6. Practice healthy sleep habits. ...
  7. Engage in healthy, pleasurable activities. ...
  8. Meditate or practice yoga.

What drugs release dopamine in the brain? ›

Every substance has slightly different effects on the brain, but all addictive drugs, including alcohol, opioids, and cocaine, produce a pleasurable surge of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia; neurotransmitters are chemicals that transmit messages between nerve cells.

Why is dopamine detox so hard? ›

A true “dopamine detox” is impossible because the brain continues to produce dopamine all the time. However, refraining from activities that stem from compulsion and impulse may prove beneficial for short periods of time.

What antidepressant increases dopamine? ›

Bupropion is unique among antidepressants as an inhibitor of dopamine reuptake, leading to increased dopamine levels in the synapse.

What is the chemical that makes you happy? ›

When it comes to happiness, in particular, the primary signaling chemicals include: Serotonin. Dopamine. Endorphins.

Where is the reward center of the brain? ›

The Striatum

It is the region of the brain that produces feelings of reward or pleasure. Functionally, the striatum coordinates the multiple aspects of thinking that help us make a decision.

How social media affects your brain? ›

Researchers believe that since social media competes for your attention with the promise of continuous new content, heavy social media users become less able to ignore distraction in general, which leads to poorer cognitive performance and shrinks parts of the brain associated with maintaining concentration.

What chemicals does friendship release? ›

Indeed, the new study showed that these two chemicals — endorphins and dopamine — "play an especially important role in facilitating friendships and social networks," he said.

Videos

1. Cinema Therapy, Social Media and Alternative Platforms Week 1
(Bruce Bradway)
2. Are you addicted to your cell phone?
(Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD)
3. The Problem With Dopamine Detoxing
(Justin Hughes)
4. Dopamine Detox: How to Reset Your Brain For Success
(Cerebral Life - Wisdom & Wealth)
5. Dopamine effects on brain: social media issue
(Alex Righetto)
6. Addiction to Technology is Ruining Lives - Simon Sinek on Inside Quest
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