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I don’t know what I would do without my iPhone.
It contains all my passwords; it’s a photo album documenting my four children’s entire lives; it’s a place for me to jot down all my ideas and words for later use; it’s my source of information and connection.
I especially love that it still works; at five years old, it’s practically an antique.
As much as I love it, it still insists on calling me out.
I’m talking about that Sunday “weekly screen time” notification. I ignored it for years, preferring ignorance. But a few months ago, the number hit me square in the face: 5 hours and 57 minutes per day.
Yikes. That’s a lot of screen time.
Sure, some of this use is constructive: my workout app, yoga app, the notes app, news, music, podcasts. But much of that time was spent mindlessly scrolling social media, checking and rechecking email, online shopping, and then hopping back on to mindlessly scroll social media again.
Smartphones and apps are, by design, made to be addictive. The more they’re used, the more profit they generate. The companies are constantly engineering new ways to draw in and hook users. It’s nothing personal; it’s capitalism.
And it works. Everywhere: phones out, heads bent, gaze down, thumbs busy—at the gym, in the grocery store line, at school pickup, in the waiting room at the doctors office, at kids’ sporting events, or my personal favorite, a couple out to dinner, looking at their phones on opposite sides of the table.
It’s hard to stay away.
Social media is particularly luring. It certainly has its uses in our modern world: connection with far away loved ones, information, promotion. It has been shown to have an actual affect on brain chemistry—specifically, dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger in the brain, and often called a “feel-good hormone.” When engaged in an enjoyable activity—eating delicious food, taking a walk, intimacy with a partner—dopamine levels increase in the brain, leading to the sensation of pleasure. This reinforces the behavior that caused it; it is more likely to be repeated.
Of course, if the triggering action is a healthy behavior, this loop can help to reinforce positive habits. Conversely, it can reinforce unhealthy behaviors as well. Habit-forming drugs, alcohol use, compulsive eating, and obsessive shopping all involve the dopamine loop. It’s not so much about the thing itself, but the wanting of it, the process of attempting to attain it, the resulting high, and the drive to do it all over again, the sooner, the better.
Ever open an app, check for notifications, and close it, only to open it again minutes—or seconds—later? Guilty. The Facebook icon looms; what notifications await? The anticipation becomes too great; dopamine surges in the brain; the finger clicks on it; notifications are checked, sometimes there is a new “like” or “love;” the resulting sense of validation causes another flood of dopamine; the app is closed, the cycle is completed and dopamine levels drop. The whole process felt so good that it’s not long before it repeats itself.
This action is not unlike a gambler hitting the slot machines. As he sits down to play, the anticipation of a possible win grows, as does the dopamine level in the brain. His hand hits the button, spinning the images around, levels rising even higher in his body. The machine locks images in, one by one, bringing that climactic level of excitement. The game is over; dopamine levels drop. Whether he wins or not, the gambler is always back for more.
I had a conversation with my dad a few years back in which he was explaining an article he had recently read. A women had deleted all “addictive” apps from her phone (Facebook, Instagram, and so on) as a means of cutting down on her screen time. What happened? She addictively checked the weather app instead.
Look at how interesting humans are.
Actually, the dopamine loop exists in animals too, and there have been many studies that show just how innate—and important—this chemical reaction is: for procreation, happiness, and even survival. For example, mice bred with the inability to synthesize dopamine were unable to anticipate the rewards of food. As a result, they were completely uninterested in eating. Of course, they died.
So, it seems that smartphones and dopamine have another similarity: they are meaningful, helpful, and necessary—when utilized in moderation.
It’s the moderation part that’s tricky though, isn’t it?
I somehow found comfort in knowing that the compulsion to check my phone came down to simple brain chemistry. I wasn’t weak; I wasn’t making bad choices; I am simply a human with a brain, whose inner workings are designed for survival.
So, I became curious. How can I cut down on screen time? How can I increase productivity, genuine connection, and presence? And because I am human, what other—healthy—ways can I activate the dopamine loop?
First, I tried the willpower method. I told myself I simply would not check email or social media until a certain time of day. Any guesses how that went?
So I have employed some other useful hacks:
1. The “Downtime” setting: I have this automatically set to engage between 6 p.m. one day and 12 p.m. the next. This allows me to “turn off” apps of my choosing during these times by graying them out on my screen. It is a reminder to save evenings for family and mornings for self-care and work. This setting can be bypassed, but it sets a few roadblocks in my way that at least cause me to question if I really need to log on.
2. “Do Not Disturb”: This is also switched on in the evening and early morning hours. Fewer notifications equal fewer urges to check the phone.
3. A reliable step tracker: If my phone is with me on a walk, and I feel it in my pocket, I will pick it up and check it. Now, the FitBit tracks my miles without any temptation.
4. Digital compartmentalization: I place “constructive” apps on the first page of my home screen; I cluster more tempting ones on the second. When I am using my phone for a specific purpose, I am much less likely to open up social media and head down a rabbit hole.
5. Putting the phone in another room: Resisting temptation is really hard. The dopamine loop is designed to cave to it. By removing it entirely, I don’t have to resist. Out of sight, out of mind.
6. Placing the phone face down: This is a gentle reminder to walk by. Without the screen and wake button right there, it’s that much harder to check.
7. Fighting fire with fire: Freedom, StayFocused, RescueTime, and the Google Chrome add-on, News Feed Eradicator, are all more advanced software options that effectively block users from certain online activities, touting increased productivity and efficiency as a result. The digital age presents opportunities. Use software to manage software use.
8. An alarm clock: When the iPhone alarm goes off and the phone is in hand, it’s all too easy to quickly check it before hopping out of bed.
The morning hours are particularly important. Upon waking, the human brain goes through a gradual progression of brain waves—deep sleep delta, into day-dreamy theta, then to alert alpha. The last state to enter is beta, which is fully awake.
When I become immediately absorbed in my phone screen upon awakening, I interrupt this natural process, launching more directly from deep sleep right into a state of being wide awake.
Per Scientific American, the natural slow wakening “time can be an extremely productive and can be a period of very meaningful and creative mental activity.” So in technologically bypassing this process, I am missing out on the opportunity to think a few good thoughts, reflect on yesterday, formulate an intention for today. I bet other creatives would agree: it’s often within the hours of slumber that the best strokes of inspiration come.
Technology can be of great benefit and great detriment. I maintain that life without my precious iPhone 8 Plus would be quite challenging. However, I also desire to remain in control—not let it control me. As goes with most things in life, it’s all about striking a balance. After years of sending me Sunday screen time notifications, I finally noticed it one day, and it sparked the need for change. Awareness comes first; change follows.
As for other ways to activate the dopamine loop? There are many. And none necessitate a phone.
Here are some healthy ways to feel good, find pleasure, and bring the brain back for more:
1. Loving touch: This includes hugs, cuddling, holding hands, or intimacy. They release a cascade of feel-good hormones—dopamine is one of them. These lead to feelings of happiness, relaxation, and presence, and may even help lift depression.
2. Exercise: While all movement is beneficial, aerobic exercise is particularly beneficial. Establishing a consistent, sustainable routine to raise the heart rate can, over time, increase the natural level of dopamine.
3. Practice yoga: A regular yoga or meditation practice helps to decrease stress, increase contentment, and bring awareness to thoughts. There is even evidence in one study that meditation can increase dopamine production.
4. Maintain a healthy diet: Much like gambling or social media, junk food is also habit-forming in that it activates the dopamine loop. It often also brings a sugar rush, sugar crash, and the inevitable cycle of reaching for more. Whole, fresh foods keep the appetite and body at a steady state.
5. Get enough sleep: In the overtired state, the brain pumps out dopamine, attempting to promote wakefulness, but the re-uptake is impaired. It’s being produced but not used. Thus, the increased levels are ineffective in alleviating the symptoms of fatigue: cognitive impairment, inability to concentrate, irritability, anxiety. After a poor night’s sleep, I find myself blissing out on my screen, searching for that dopamine hit much more than usual. Conversely, a good nights sleep means increased focus and creative energy, and the motivation to use it.
6. Limit alcohol and/or drugs: There are varying levels of use here. For some, after years of heavy use, the permanent levels of dopamine in the brain actually decrease altogether, reinforcing the need for an external substance to feel good. In some cases, a treatment program, support groups, therapy, or other modalities can help to break these patterns.
7. Listen to music: Favorite tunes can increase dopamine levels in the brain. If streaming off a phone, Bluetooth speakers or headphones help to keep the phone far away.
8. Spend time outside: Fresh air and sunshine have endless benefits. Catching sunlight in the morning hours has been shown to support a healthy circadian rhythm; there’s that good night’s sleep. It’s also commonly paired with exercise. And at least one study has shown an increase in dopamine receptors in people who spent more time outside. Appreciate the beauty of spring flowers, look up and see the colors of a sunset, spot wildlife, breathe in fresh air: the natural world is full of opportunities to activate curiosity and spark joy.
9. Have fun: This looks different to everyone. Learn a new skill or dust off some old gear and give it a try again. My husband recently purchased himself a pair of inline skates and has been playing roller hockey with our son, after years of not partaking in the sport. I acquired my first mountain bike and have been riding on trails; I’m far from skilled, but it sure is fun to try. So often the ability to play is lost in adulthood. I am determined to maintain it—even if it means laughing at myself along the way.
10. Break up a big project into smaller steps: I especially love this one. That feeling of accomplishment when a job is completed and checked off? That’s dopamine at work. However, when faced with a large to-do list, it’s easy to feel bogged down and avoid it completely—which means that sense of completion, and resulting dopamine hit, will never come. By mindfully planning and showing up consistently in small sustainable ways, small wins can come often. These become a self-fulfilling prophecy: finishing a task means a dopamine rush, which reinforces the act of finishing a task. The list gets completed.
11. Write down wins: I often feel that I’m not doing enough. When I take a moment at the end of the day to reflect, I often realize that I have, in reality, accomplished a great deal. Jot down a list of all the completed tasks—however small. It feels good.
12. Tell someone about these accomplishments: But try doing it in person. Seeking praise and validation is an evolutionary human craving. Back in the day, being accepted by the tribe was imperative to survival. Turns out, humans aren’t all that different now. Facebook likes are great, but a face-to-face congratulations—maybe even a hug—are so much more potent.
I write this article because I need this reminder: at the end of life what will matter most is not the number of likes on a screen but the depth of human connection. I seek joy; it is natural. I also seek presence, eye contact, productivity, and every now and again a glimpse of the sky. I like to think I can have it all.
As of this writing, my most recent Sunday report was an average of 3 hours, 34 minutes of screen time. This means I have successfully reclaimed two hours of my day.
A win checked off. It feels good.
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Sunshine-exposure variation of human striatal dopamine D(2)/D(3) receptor availability in healthy volunteers
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