How Social Media Algorithms And Dopamine Addiction Hack Your Brain Into Depression And Anxiety

How Social Media Algorithms And Dopamine Addiction Hack Your Brain Into Depression And Anxiety


How Social Media Algorithms And Dopamine Addiction Hack Your Brain Into Depression And Anxiety Photo credit: Prostock-Studio iStock istockphoto.com/portfolio/Milkos?mediatype=photography

Every time we like, swipe or tweet something on our smartphones, we are increasing our digital dependency and our addiction dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. That could be causing the rising rates of anxiety and depression in affluent countries such as the U.S., according to addiction expert Dr Anna Lembke.

Lembke is chief of Stanford University’s dual diagnosis addiction clinic, catering to people with more than one disorder.

She does not deliver good news in her latest book, “Dopamine Nation.” Bottom line: we are now all addicts to some degree.

Lembke likens the smartphone to a modern-day hypodermic needle that we use for quick hits, validation, attention and distraction. We are obsessed with instant gratification, she writes, and ehavioral addictions (as opposed to substance addicitions) have soared since 2,000. Every spare second is an opportunity to be stimulated online.

During an interview with The Guardian, Lembke pointed out to interviewer Jamie Waters an “unhealthy attachment” to his iPhone, “checking it every few minutes like a compulsive tic (sound familiar?).” Lembke suggested abstaining from using it for at least 24 hours by locking it in a drawer and going out.

Social media algorithms are a way of sifting through content and sorting it, delivering only “relevant” content rather than random posts. Social networks prioritize which content a user sees in their feed first by the likelihood that they’ll actually want to see it. By default, social media algorithms take the reins of determining which content to deliver to you based on your behavior.

“Over the course of my career as a psychiatrist, I have seen more and more patients who suffer from depression and anxiety, including otherwise healthy young people with loving families, elite education and relative wealth,” Lembke wrote in an Aug. 13 column for the Wall Street Journal. “Their problem isn’t trauma, social dislocation or poverty. It’s too much dopamine.”

Pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain, which works hard to keep them in balance. That’s why pleasure is usually followed by a comedown or feeling of hangover, Lembke wrote. Neutrality is restored if we can wait long enough but it’s natural to go back for another dose to the source of pleasure.

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“If we keep up this pattern for hours every day, over weeks or months, the brain’s set-point for pleasure changes. Now we need to keep playing games, not to feel pleasure but just to feel normal,” she wrote.

The universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance include anxiety, cravings, irritability, insomnia and dysphoria — a profound state of dissatisfaction or uneasiness that is the opposite of euphoria and can accompany depression.

Lembke asked a patient of hers who was playing videogames all day and contemplating suicide to give up videogames for a month.

“To his surprise, he did feel better than he had in years, with less anxiety and less depression,” she wrote. “He was even able to return to playing videogames without negative effects, by strictly limiting his playing time to no more than two days a week, for two hours a day. That way he left enough time in between sessions for the brain’s dopamine balance to be restored.”