Acknowledging Our Dopamine-Driven Addiction

The social media recovery movement is gathering momentum.

“Put Down Your Phone” commands the cover line of New York magazine’s Oct. 2 issue. The  headline atop author and proto-blogger Andrew Sullivan’s essay inside: “I Used To Be A Human Being.” The subhed puts it all in context: “An endless bombardment of news and gossip and images has rendered us manic information addicts. It broke me. It might break you, too.” Roughly 7,000 words follow.

The paperback edition of "Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done" by Jocelyn K. Glei was released Tuesday. An excerpt in Time tells us “it’s time to let go of inbox zero. To admit that it’s an addictive game rather than a meaningful goal.” (I learned about the book from Time’s daily email newsletter, which raises a question. Should I start letting go by unsubscribing to newsletters that just lead me into the rabbit hole of hyperlinks and clickbait?)



A couple of weeks ago, I received a pitch to interview two doctors who treat adolescents at a residential treatment center about “how tech addiction is affecting young people.” The publicist cited a poll conducted for Common Sense Media in which 50% of teens felt they were addicted to their mobile devices, with 78% of respondnets checking their phones at least hourly.

All of this got me thinking. Beyond “the allure of popularity and social status,” as Sullivan puts it, does social media have any real value? How might we better integrate the smartphone into our lives, on the premise that it’s not going away, but is increasingly integral to our lives and careers? How do we help our kids, bombarded by social stimuli, realize the need for more meaningful communication?

I turned to Halley Bock for insight. Bock was the driven and successful CEO of a Seattle-based company that “focused on developing the art of conversation as the vehicle for creating connection” in the business world. She was, she says, addicted to her smartphone and social media a few years ago, when “achievements, acquiring things and being what I thought other people wanted me to be” were her goals.

“I don’t have any facts to back this up, but my guess is the more someone posts, the more discontent exists in one’s life,” she says in retrospect. “It can be a great surrogate for meaningful relationships, or seeming to build self-worth.”

Starting in April 2015, Bock’s life turned upside down. That’s a good thing. Her "Life, Incorporated: A Practical Guide To Wholehearted Living," which will be published in January, explains how. It’s a compelling narrative of her experiences as a dotcom-boom-era tech pioneer and training company leader, as well as a hands-on workbook for reconnecting with what really matters in life.

The Dopamine Rush
Bock says that a live presentation by Dan Siegel, an author and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, put the addictive nature of social media into a breakthrough perspective for her.

“Social media is one of the cheapest, laziest and most accessible ways for us to go to the well for dopamine, a reward chemical in our brain,” she recalls Siegel explaining. “It's a rush of happy vibes that we get when we exercise or when someone give us a hug or when we accomplish something. When we put a status update up and somebody likes it, or when they share what we said, we get a dopamine hit.

"And the more that happens, the more we’re trained to go back to that well. It’s a really easy way for us to get a feel-good moment. We don’t know exactly what we’re doing or why, but we keep loading the trap, posting something up. And then we keep coming back, checking on it, checking on it, checking on it. ‘Did someone share what I said because that makes me feel important?’ And then, boom, I get these chemicals,” she says.

Realizing that our dependence on likes, retweets and the number of friends we have has a physiological basis and is not just a matter of choice helped Bock get on top of the issue by becoming “mindful of what’s really going,” she says. It has also enabled her to “stop beating myself up about it,” which only exacerbates the problem.

“When we’re hard on ourselves, and judge ourselves, it can easily work opposite to changing a habit,” she points out.

Bock has two children, 6 and 8, and is preparing for already feeling pressure from the eldest, who has friends using social media. Her own boundaries are that  her kids not have social media profiles until they are at least 12 or 13, that she will have access to their feeds and picture sharing at that time, and that location be turned off on their devices.

She is also careful not to be involved with her phone when she has the opportunity to engage with her kids. Children instinctively know when we're “not really there,” she says. “Few things make me more agitated and emotional than when I see a parent pushing a swing and just scrolling.”

But Bock also points out that social media can be “really powerful and wonderful.” We can make connections with people who have the same concerns and interests without geographical limitations. We are better informed because we can access a multitude of news sources we could not in the past. Finally, it gives us a platform to have more of an impact than before.  

A few hours after our interview, I heard my phone buzz — an invitation from Bock to connect on LinkedIn. Yes, of course, was my immediate reaction. Hmmm. “But if I reply immediately,” I thought, “will it look like my life revolves around that 5-inch screen?”

I admit I am powerless. Abstinence is an unlikely outcome. But harm-reduction is an achievable goal. I accepted Bock’s request and went for a long walk on a trail along the Hudson. My phone was on, but I gave it no attention.  

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