Beware the dopamine loopPublished on 28 August 2019
The internet is a wonderful thing. It connects us, empowers us with knowledge and saves us time with shopping, banking and checking in to flights. Every day. But beware the effects of relying on your phone too much, particularly on that happy feeling you get from social media, warns Jessica McGawley, Founder of Dallington Associates, a company providing wellbeing support and personal development services the children of international families attending university in London.
“As our digital world becomes more and more entwined with our reality, are we in control of it or is it in control of us?” Jessica asked guests at our recent Next Generation course, held in London and hosted by Matthew Fleming, Head of Succession and Governance. The course takes the opportunity to engage with the younger generation of our client families and open their minds to considering the challenges and responsibilities they are likely to face in life.
The rate of technological change is probably greater today than it has been for any generation in living memory. Our 2018 Four Pillars of Capital research report, subtitled Practical Wisdom and Leadership for Changing Times, cited technology as putting a distance between the generations. 33% of respondents rated it as the biggest driver of this.
According to the Royal Society for Public Health’s 2017 report, #StatusofMind, 91% of 16-24 year olds in the UK use the internet for social networking. The report also found that rates of anxiety and depression in young people have risen 70% in the past 25 years and links this and problems with poor sleep to social media usage.
“We are online – on our phones - all day,” said Jessica, who referred to the report saying that young people spend over two hours a day on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, and asking: “How can these numbers not be affecting our health and wellbeing?”
Jessica, who is a qualified consulting psychologist with a Masters in Psychodynamic and Systemic Psychology, turned to science to answer the question. “Dopamine is a feelgood hormone, it is a chemical neurotransmitter that is released from the brain when you are doing what would be described as a pleasurable activity,” she said. “This includes thing like exercise and socialising with friends, but also gambling, drinking, taking drugs and using social media.”
And it is with social media, according to Jessica, that addiction can take hold. “When you are scrolling on your Instagram, you think you are in control, but the dopamine is slowly being released, drip feeding your addiction and encouraging you to look at the next post - it might be a bit better, funnier, more glamorous. Before you know it, 90 minutes have gone,” she said. “And you are not in control of it.”
That is the dopamine loop. “The more you use it the more you need it and the higher your tolerance becomes. Like any addiction, you are going to need more of it to get the same fix.” The scary thing is though that unlike other pleasures, where you might leave your social setting to get those pleasures, with social media you can get your fix any time - on the tube, on a date, in a classroom. “And, the shorter the time between hits, the stronger the loop becomes, making us more addicted to it.”
What is perhaps more sinister than anything is the ‘pushers’ in this picture. On the surface of it, they are not doing anything wrong and indeed, they are not breaking any laws. They are legitimately doing their jobs, plying their trade, notes Jessica: “Social media companies spend millions trying to manipulate us into doing this: the side bars, the likes, the surges. They are all designed to encourage users to keep looking.”
As to the negative effects of overusing social media on your phone, they are many, warned Jessica. Among physical problems like a stiff neck overuse affects yours sleep. “Sitting up in bed at night looking at a little blue light keeps your body on a kind of daytime alert mode. It affects your circadian rhythm - the natural process that regulates the sleep/wake cycle. It means you don’t get that deep sleep you need.”
Jessica continued to explore other, cognitive symptoms of overuse. “We should be the best multi taskers because we have everything we could possible need on our phones: our diary, work emails, social life. The problem is, it is making us ineffective at focusing on one thing at a time. We are used to being entertained constantly by so many different digital technologies that when it comes to reading a book, reading a recipe or following an instruction manual, we just get distracted.” she said.
That is to say nothing of the emotional symptoms of social media dependence. Numerous studies, including #StatusofMind, make the link between social media and depression and anxiety. “You leave your phone for a period of time and you come back 76 messages missed form an individual WhatsApp chat. It is very overwhelming to be constantly catching up with other people’s lives – often people we don’t actually know very well. We have enough stress and worries of our own”, noted Jessica.
Cyberbullying is another concern. Jessica’s theory on this is that its proliferation is to do with users not being “connected” to other people due to conducting relationships online. “If I look at you and say something hurtful, I will see your expression change – see how my words have affected you - and feel pretty ashamed of myself and probably want to apologise. In person, you would have the chance to argue back at me. If I put that hurtful comment online, not only can others see it, but I can’t see your face. It doesn’t affect me if you get upset. That is not fair.”
Despite all her warnings, Jessica isn’t without hope. There are plenty of things, she said, that people can do to protect themselves from the negative effects of social media and digital technology in general. She had some simple advice. “Be aware of who your actual friends are and who your online friends are,” she cautioned. And, when it comes to body image, be realistic about what you are looking at online. “Value people’s imperfections – don’t just believe the filtered images you consume on social media. As humans, often what we find attractive in people is their imperfections, meeting them in person will allow you to see and appreciate those.”
Jessica left our young guests with a simple thought – embrace tedium. “Creativity can stem from boredom – from letting your mind wander and go to places that are not the regurgitated images that we are fed on Instagram. We are social beings who need to be stimulated by going to that place of boredom.” You may never know what you could achieve until you take that break from the dopamine loop.
- Put your phone in a drawer or even in another room, even if it is just for an hour
- Forget the fear of missing out (fomo) and embrace ‘jomo’- the joy of missing out
- Turn off notifications apart from the ones you really need
- Turn your computer or laptop to ‘Greyscale’ mode so colourful apps are less enticing
- Use ‘Night Mode’ on your phone to sync it with your circadian rhythm – it turns your phone from blue to orange light and aids restful sleep
- Speak or use audio notes – voice messages are less open to interpretation
- Use advert blockers to help you concentrate on work or studying
- Limit yourself to two hours or less of social media per day
- Do a digital detox once in a while – delete all apps on your phone and have a total break
- Exercise – it is a great way of disconnecting physically from your phone – you can’t text while boxing or swimming!