In a new book, a leading psychiatrist argues we are all addicts now - with the smartphone the “modern-day hypodermic needle.” Are there ways to get clean without becoming a total tech hermit? You bet!
Acclaimed addiction expert Dr. Anna Lembke is chief of Stanford’s addiction clinic. (You may have seen her featured in the 2020 Netflix doco The Social Dilemma.) In her latest book, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, Lembke lays out a sobering thesis: that surging rates of dysfunction and unhappiness are directly tied to our digital dependencies.
But more accurately: It’s not the devices we’re hooked on - it’s the dopamine.
For too many of us, she observes, “Every spare second is an opportunity to be stimulated, whether by scrolling Instagram, swiping through Tinder or bingeing on porn, online gambling and e-shopping.”
And yet - despite all of these distractions - “the data shows we’re less and less happy.” Rates of depression have soared over the past three decades. And, particularly for those in affluent countries, we’ve become documentably more unhappy since the appearance of the smartphone.
“We’re losing our capacity to delay gratification, solve problems and deal with frustration and pain in its many different forms.”
It's all about dopamine
It’s all about dopamine, aka “the Kim Kardashian of molecules.” Contrary to popular belief, the “feel-good hormone” - which wasn’t even identified by scientists until 1957 - doesn’t cause pleasure. Instead, it drives us to do things we think will bring pleasure.
Scientists measure dopamine release to determine the addictive potential of an experience. The higher the release, the more addictive the experience.
But the brain seeks balance - what scientists call “homeostasis.” So as soon as the pleasurable sensations end, we experience a comedown. In that state, “we really want that second piece of chocolate or to watch another episode.” But unless we are addicted, we are able to resist that temptation.
But the higher the high, the lower the low - forcing us to seek more and more of the pleasure-giving source. And that’s when “addiction” begins.
Keep in mind, though, that addiction is a spectrum disorder. That means it’s not black and white - either you are or you aren’t addicted. It’s possible to be somewhat addicted, very addicted, or in danger of becoming addicted.
Internet addictions are in some ways even more dangerous than substance addictions, which almost always are subject to natural limitations - whether financial (you run out of money to buy the drug) or material (your stash is used up).
But the internet is never used up, and it’s free. Online porn, social media feeds, YouTube, gaming, Netflix, TikTok … the content flows in a literally unending stream.
We can do hard things
So what can we do to break free? The answer is both simple, and hard. It means making a commitment to consciously limit our own engagement with digital distractions - and to make sure we do the same with our children.
This “new form of asceticism,” Lembke is convinced, is the “path to a good life.”
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