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Biomedical Research Health and Disease

Why We’re Addicted to Our Phones

Hours and hours of mindless scrolling does not happen out of nowhere. In our brains, we derive pleasure from the dopamine reward system. As we indulge in social media, this system gets activated and reinforces our behavior to keep us addicted.

By Brian Caballo

Published 11:02 PM EST, Mon April 5, 2021

Introduction

The development of social media has transformed into the pinnacle of human interaction in today’s world. Especially in light of this ongoing pandemic, the longing for interaction is quelled by the boundless communication that is easily executable from our smartphones. In the past 12 months alone, the number of social media users worldwide has increased by 490 million. With this new upsurge in users, there is now a total of 4.20 billion people that use social media around the world – that is over half of the world’s population! With such a large influence over modern society, it is needless to say that the time spent scrolling through social media platforms has grown as well. Especially in the teenager age group, more specifically middle and high school students, it is common to see large daily screen time spent on apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok. Too many times we tell ourselves “five more minutes” but continue to scroll through social media way past this time.

Dopamine

Why does this happen? You can blame your mindless scrolling on the hormone called dopamine. Our brain produces this chemical, and it plays an extremely significant role in motivating behavior, which is basically a push to keep doing something. Actions and behaviors that are generally regarded as beneficial to us, such as eating tasty food or having a good workout, prompts a release of dopamine so that we keep repeating them. Dopamine serves as somewhat of a “reward” for the actions we do by providing us pleasure when it gets released. Naturally, we as humans seek out more and more of that pleasure, so we keep doing the actions that give it to us. 

Our brain has four pathways for dopamine to travel through, each with different processes. Three of these pathways are associated with the reward system: the mesocortical, mesolimbic, and nigrostriatal pathways. These pathways are responsible for why we are addicted to certain actions, as they release dopamine to certain areas in our brain to give us feelings of pleasure. 

The problem with this “reward system” is that it is somewhat of a positive feedback loop. The more we do an activity that prompts a release of dopamine, the stronger the connection between that activity and dopamine release gets. This activity is then reinforced, and we likely do more of it as a result.

Dopamine and Social Media

This whole dopaminergic reward system connects to social media because of one major factor; our brains release dopamine when we are able to have social interaction. This could mean a plethora of different stimuli that we recognize as a successful social interaction. For instance, seeing someone smiling or laughing, whether that be in-person or digitally through your phone, is perceived as a sign of social interaction because it is as if you told something to that person to cause them to laugh. 

A major component of social media addiction is the notifications that pop up. Likes, comments, direct messages; all of it. In short, we are getting a huge amount of attention for little to no effort. This gives us a rush of dopamine because it is perceived as a successful social interaction by our brains. This turns into a cycle where we just keep wanting more of these notifications to feel special. 

Another facet of social media addiction is the content that we consume. With a lot of social media platforms, there is a lot of interesting, comedic, or informative content that is short. For example, let’s take a look at the platform TikTok. While the limit for TikTok videos is now 60 seconds, it used to be a 15-second maximum. The information in these brief videos can stimulate a dopamine response because we are receiving relevant content in such a short period. (This emphasis on short content length can be seen in other platforms like Twitter, which has a character limit on tweets to ensure they aren’t too long and boring.) Then, when we scroll down, we are exposed to a brand new TikTok video with brand new interesting information. This cycle continues; we are stimulated by all of the kinds of information TikTok has to offer. You may ask yourself what makes Tik Tok so addictive, and that would be the “For You Page”. The “For You Page” has an algorithm that keeps track of the types of videos that we like and interact with. The types of videos we enjoy then keep popping up, and keep us scrolling for even longer. 

Another interesting perspective on social media addiction is that we connect with everyone else, but still remain anonymous. We are able to access the social interaction and attention we crave, and at the same time, we do not have to worry about being “embarrassed” or putting ourselves out there. We can have whole conversations in the comments without exposing ourselves. Our anonymity allows us to avoid the full effects of judgement, and yet we also have the power to freely judge others. Social media gives us a newfound social power that did not exist before.

Conclusion

It is important to keep in mind that the goal of social media platforms and businesses is to make us addicted. When we are on their apps for longer, we watch more sponsored ads, we boost their ratings and thus their capabilities, and more. 

If you find yourself falling into the clutches of social media, try to remember that that is their whole intention; to keep you mindlessly stolen. Instead, try to think of other productive ways to use your time and release dopamine; exercise is a good one! Furthermore, eating well and sleeping a good amount naturally increases dopamine levels, which uplifts your mood! Don’t let your smartphone control you, you’re the one that’s in control!

Brian Caballo, Youth Medical Journal 2021

References

DataSeries – Medium. (2020, September 6). How TikTok Is Addictive. https://medium.com/dataseries/how-tiktok-is-addictive-1e53dec10867#:~:text=TikTok%20may%20be%20addictive%20if,it%20is%20short%20and%20captivating

Science in the News. (2018, May). Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time. https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/ 

Addiction Center. (2020, November 20). Social Media Addiction. https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/social-media-addiction/#:~:text=When%20a%20person%20posts%20a,perpetuates%20the%20social%20media%20habit.

Dr. Kojo Sarfo. (2020, September 27). How to Stop Endless Scrolling on Social Media. https://www.kojosarfo.com/how-to-stop-endless-scrolling-on-social-media/ 

DataReportal – Global Digital Insights. (2021, January 27). Digital 2021: Global Overview Report. https://datareportal.com/reports/digital-2021-global-overview-report

By Brian Caballo

Brian Caballo is a student at The Bronx High School of Science in New York City, NY. He is mainly interested in the fields of neuroscience and stem cell biology.

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