The neuroscience of dopamine and social media dependence and how to overcome it

Anna Lembke is a Professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and the author of Dopamine Nation. This book explores “new scientific discoveries that explain why the relentless pursuit of pleasure leads to pain.”

The video below is an enlightening clip from her interview on the Modern Wisdom podcast, where she describes how social media usage affects dopamine levels. See below the video for a summary of the key ideas and a full transcript.

Summary of the Key Ideas

Social media has essentially ‘druggified’ human connection.”

Social media has revolutionized how we connect and communicate, making it easier than ever to build and maintain relationships online. However, the constant availability of social interactions, such as likes, comments, and shares, can quickly become addictive. The release of dopamine, a hormone linked to pleasure and reward, reinforces these social interactions and creates a cycle of repeated engagement.

The accessibility, quantity, potency, and novelty of these social interactions on social media can lead to excessive usage, causing a range of adverse effects on mental and emotional well-being. 

  • Access: It’s easier to get addicted to things when they are easily accessible
  • Quantity: The content on social media is never-ending
  • Potency: Social media usually combines other stimulatory elements, such as beauty, sex, gaming, gambling, music, and flashing lights, to make it more potent.
  • Novelty: dopamine triggers are especially sensitive to new things

Social media apps use AI algorithms to govern and personalize newsfeeds, constantly learning from user actions to suggest content that is predicted to keep them engaged. This creates a personalized experience that is difficult to resist. 

The quantification of social interactions on social media, such as likes and views, reinforces the addiction and triggers the release of dopamine, leading to a pleasurable feeling. These factors combine to create a highly addictive product accessible to most people through their pockets.

Constant exposure to social media can significantly impact mental health and well-being, leading to feelings of comparison, low self-esteem, and depression.

How do we Deal with Social Media Addiction?

Addiction is a challenging and multifaceted issue requiring a holistic treatment approach. To truly overcome addiction, individuals need to address not only the biological aspect but also the psychological, social, and behavioral factors involved. 

One innovative approach to treating addiction is using a dopamine fast, which aims to reset the brain’s reward pathways and curb the reinforcing effects of addictive substances. This could involve utilizing medicines like Naltrexone, an opioid receptor blocker, to reduce alcohol consumption or to make lifestyle changes to support sobriety.

However, it’s important to remember that addiction is a spectrum disorder, and the effectiveness of dopamine fasting will vary depending on the individual. Those with mild to moderate addiction may succeed with this approach. At the same time, those with severe addiction may need more comprehensive treatments such as residential rehab or medication-assisted therapy.

Regardless of the severity of addiction, it’s vital to understand that overcoming it requires a multi-pronged approach that addresses the disease’s physical and psychological aspects. By utilizing cutting-edge techniques like dopamine fasting and a range of other evidence-based treatments, individuals can take the first steps towards a life free from addiction.

Video Transcript

Chris  0:00  

What do social media and technology do to our dopamine levels? Have you looked at this? 

Anna  0:05  

Social media has essentially druggified human connection. We evolved over millions of years to want to connect with other people. We are tribal creatures, and we’re social animals. My colleague, Rob Lenka, recently showed that oxytocin, the love hormone, when it’s released binds to dopamine neurons in the reward pathway and causes dopamine release. It’s not surprising to most of us; we are motivated to connect. And our brain gets us to do that by releasing dopamine. So it feels good to connect. 

That means all those meta experiences that tell us we’re making a connection also release dopamine. So, we have a dopamine release when people like us, a dopamine release when people agree with us, and a dopamine release when people, you know, enhance our reputation. We have a dopamine release when we’re experiencing the same emotion simultaneously as other people. So that’s very powerful, which is why social media can be like this frenzy. 

Because when we are getting outraged at the same time as somebody else, that releases dopamine when we’re laughing at the same time as somebody else, that releases dopamine when we watch somebody watching a video. We have the same reaction as they have to that video that releases dopamine, which explains the mystery of why we would ever want to watch people watching other people. 

But it makes perfect intuitive sense to explain to you exactly, yeah, right. But what social media has, unfortunately, the potential to do is drug-ify human connection by contributing to all of the features that make something addictive. And that is access quantity, potency, and novelty. So if we have easy access to our drug of choice, which we do with social media, then we’re more likely to get addicted, especially when you compare that before social media, what you had to do to go out and meet people, right?

First, you had to get off the couch; you had to go out and find the people, and most of them will be average looking and average interesting right. It’s not like that now, you know, you can just stay on your couch and swipe right or swipe left quantity, right. So if you think about almost all traditional drugs and alcohol, typically eventually, you run out, you got to go out and get more tick tock never runs out. 

If you look at potency, how do we make things more potency? We combined with potent; we combined two drugs. And that’s precisely what social media has done. It combined beautiful images, with sex with gaming, with gambling, with music with flashing lights to make it all the more potent. And then, finally, novelty. 

Dopamine is very sensitive to anything new, especially if it’s something that we liked before. But it’s a slight variation on that. And these AI algorithms are learning us to figure out what we wanted before. Then they suggest something similar but slightly different, which automatically triggers dopamine. This automatically triggers our search and explores the function, our treasure-hunting function, when we’re off and running, looking for that next slightly better thing. 

And then, finally, social media has enumerated things; it’s given it numbers. And for reasons we don’t fully understand, when we enumerate things or have rankings or several likes, that’s reinforcing; we tend to like that.

Chris  3:27  

Why do some people find certain things rewarding regarding how we interpret them? So, for instance, one person might get beat up by gaining followers on Instagram, but another one might be interested in shooting people in a video game. Another one is funny cat videos. Is this more of that genetic spread from the group? Do you think? Or is there something else going on?

Anna  3:51  

I think it’s mostly just a natural drug of choice. You know that some people will enjoy certain drugs and not others and that there’s variation in the human population. But some of that also has to do with our social networks. So addiction does spread like a virus.

And we’re more likely to try and use drugs that people in our social network are trying and using. So if you hang out with a bunch of video gamers, you’re more likely to get online partially because it’s, you know, socially enhancing and binds you to them, which is, you know, also crucial for people.

Chris  4:27  

Behavioral interventions are the only solution to a dopamine detox, and you spend time away from your drug or activity. Is it just down to behavioral interventions? Or is the pharmacological solution for this? Can we pray the addiction away? What’s going on?

Anna  4:43  

Yeah, so addiction is the quintessential biopsychosocial disease, which means that we need biological interventions, psychological interventions, and social interventions, behavioral interventions, kind of like a dopamine fast sort of crosses all of those because, biologically, we’re allowing reward pathways to reset themselves, allowing ourselves to look back and see actual cause and effect. 

But also in order to accomplish that we often have to change our environment or the people we hang out. So it’s also psychological and social. But that’s not the only intervention. We can also use chemicals to help people stop using them. So, for example, now naltrexone is an opioid receptor blocker that can be used to treat people not just with opioid addiction but also with alcohol addiction. 

Alcohol is mediated in part through our endogenous opioid system. So by blocking our opioid receptors, we make the alcohol less reinforcing, which means people can use it not just to help them stop drinking altogether but actually to reduce the amount they’re drinking. And that’s a nifty tool because many people don’t want to stop completely. They want to use it in moderation.

And when they use now naltrexone, they say I can just better stop it with two or three drinks rather than progressing to six or seven drinks. I also want to emphasize that addiction is a spectrum disorder, mild, moderate, and severe. 

And this dopamine fast intervention is only really going to work for folks who are sort of on the borderline between being addicted and being a little addicted or maybe a mild to moderate addiction, in terms of just asking people to do it on their own. 

For people more severely addicted to dopamine, fast is equally important, but they probably won’t be able to do it entirely independently. They may have to go into rehab or a residential treatment center, or they may have to be given, you know, medications like an opioid receptor blocker to even make it possible for them to abstain. 

So I want to emphasize that we’re talking about a spectrum disorder. And my book is mainly targeting people who are a little bit addicted. However, the ideas there apply to addiction more broadly as well.

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