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Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle For Your Time

Article from Harvard University

By Trevor Haynes

Dopamine is one major reason we cannot seem to put our phones down nowadays. We constantly check for a text, or a new like on our Instagram post, and get a hit of dopamine when that text or new like are present. If we do not have a text or a new like, we keep checking our phones because we are craving that dopamine hit that did not quite come with the lack of notifications. The dopamine hit will not come until we get what we are so badly looking for. As a GenZ iPhone user myself, I am definitely guilty of constantly checking my phone, and while a little scary, it is refreshing to hear the science behind it all. 

The article, “Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A Battle For Your Time,” by Trevor Haynes, dives into the science behind dopamine and addiction to iPhones. A few paragraphs from the article are present here, but check out the link at the bottom of this article if you want to read it in full.

“Dopamine is a chemical produced by our brains that plays a starring role in motivating behavior. It gets released when we take a bite of delicious food, when we have sex, after we exercise, and, importantly, when we have successful social interactions. In an evolutionary context, it rewards us for beneficial behaviors and motivates us to repeat them.”

“The human brain contains four major dopamine “pathways,” or connections between different parts of the brain that act as highways for chemical messages called neurotransmitters. Each pathway has its own associated cognitive and motor (movement) processes. Three of these pathways—the mesocortical, mesolimbic, and nigrostriatal pathways—are considered our “reward pathways” and have been shown to be dysfunctional in most cases of addiction. They are responsible for the release of dopamine in various parts of the brain, which shapes the activity of those areas. The fourth, the tuberoinfundibular pathway, regulates the release of a hormone called prolactin that is required for milk production.”

“Although not as intense as hit of cocaine, positive social stimuli will similarly result in a release of dopamine, reinforcing whatever behavior preceded it. Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that rewarding social stimuli—laughing faces, positive recognition by our peers, messages from loved ones—activate the same dopaminergic reward pathways. Smartphones have provided us with a virtually unlimited supply of social stimuli, both positive and negative. Every notification, whether it’s a text message, a “like” on Instagram, or a Facebook notification, has the potential to be a positive social stimulus and dopamine influx.”

So, with that being said, it is important to try and figure out what your own impulse is. Do you just feel like scrolling on Instagram? Or, are you waiting for a certain text to pop up. When you identify your specific phone-behaviors that seem to make you “feel good,” it is a lot easier to start to work on breaking that habit. Some ways to start doing so are by putting your phone in another room when you are doing homework, setting time limits on your social media apps or simply deleting the apps that make you the “happiest,” (give you a major dopamine rush). It will likely be difficult at first, but overtime you will not be as affected when you do check your phone. You will not feel “as good” when checking your phone, thus leaving you less addicted. The goal is not to completely stop using your iPhone and checking social media apps, but to be aware of how much you rely on your phone, and then work towards fixing that if you feel it is an issue! I am excited to now get better at using my phone less and relying on it less.

If you are interested in reading the full article, check it out here: https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2018/dopamine-smartphones-battle-time/ 

Published by Katie Greer

Katie Greer (she/her) is a recent graduate from Trinity College where she majored in Psychology and minored in Writing, Rhetoric and Media Studies. She was a member of the swim team at Trinity, and a captain her senior year. Currently, Katie is working for Promly as a Marketing and Project Coordinator! She is looking to go to graduate school next fall to get a Masters of Social Work or a Masters of Education in Counseling Psychology.

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