Like many of you, I continue to work from home, spending most of my day in front of a computer screen. And if I am not on my zillionth Zoom meeting, I can be found on the phone scrolling pages of my latest newsfeed and checking the tweets of those I am following (which never takes just a few minutes). According to the latest research, I am proof that, on average, a person will look or swipe their screen more than 300 times a day. A Nielsen market study also found that we are on our smartphones for more than four hours a day.
Our smartphones have become “pocket computers” allowing us to work and stay connected with colleagues, friends, and families anywhere in the world. We can research just about anything quickly, play games, send videos, and text messages. We have learned so much with the simple touch of a screen.
Renowned McGill University neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin was one of the first scientists to characterize our interaction on social media platforms as a neural addiction. Our daily need to check emails, phone, Facebook, and Twitter activates a feedback loop in the nucleus accumbens, known as our brain’s pleasure center. When we get a notification of an incoming email or a “like” on our Facebook or Instagram page, our brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine and sends it along a reward pathway that gives us that “good feeling/vibe”.
Dopamine is that famous neurotransmitter associated with desire, food, love, sex, and yes, gambling and drugs. That means every time dopamine is released, it stimulates our reward circuit giving us immediate satisfaction. And with anything we enjoy in life, we want more of it. However, that’s not all. Our prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that gives us the decision-making and ability to make a judgment, actually surrenders to the power of something new, telling our brain there is something new worth looking at.
Imagine, you are writing the last page of your report while your phone pings with an incoming text message. Your prefrontal cortex immediately shifts attention to that new “thing” and gets a jolt of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. You respond and feel immediately rewarded for shifting your attention and in the process, forget what you were actually working on and develop a social media habit that is hard to break. Levitin argues that this constant multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop where we reward the brain for losing focus while it searches for that new stimulation.
Research has also found that the power of the jolt in dopamine release is also related to the importance of the sender of the message. It made sense when a good friend could not complete her thought midway through our conversation, interrupted by the email flashing on her watch and it also explains why I check for messages on my phone when I wake up in the middle of the night, a rather irrational act! If it is any consolation, according to Dscout, more than 87% of us check our phones between midnight and 5 am.
For our kids, social media plays a starring role in their lives. Preadolescents and adolescents thrive on connecting with their friends on social media platforms, captivated by the “likes” and number of followers they get on their Instagram, Snapchat, or share with TikTok. They are constantly texting and receiving what a youth psychologist colleague refers to as jolts of “easy dopamine”. Seeing teens walking slouched with their heads down has become the norm. Why? Because of FOMO: “Fear of Missing Out”. Many kids sleep with their phones or hide them under their pillow so that parents cannot notice that they are checking for the latest likes or comments in the wee hours of the night. This is not a very good practice when we know that the blue-emitting light of a phone can impede the melatonin production that helps us sleep. Brain imaging has shown that this ongoing stimulation creates dopamine cravings in the brain, altering the reward circuitry potentially leading to substantial changes in how the brain develops in adolescence. There is also growing evidence that intensive screen time can impact learning, memory, and mental health. (Neophytou, Manwell and Eikelboom, 2019).
It’s worth asking ourselves, what kind of relationship we want to have with technology?
For me, I love their convenience and versatility allowing me to work remotely, but I don’t want my life to be defined by it. By recognizing and being conscious of the use of technology in our lives, we can decide how much undistracted time we want to give our brain and mind. I have tested and used a number of strategies that could be helpful in reducing some of our screen time and find greater balance in our life.
Try a few and see how you feel and how your mind responds:
Employing some of the strategies can help relieve our minds from constant distractions and will enable us to enjoy our surroundings: nature and those we care for.
DR. NICOLE LORETO, PhD, MSc, Nicole Loreto holds a Doctorate in Health Psychology, a Master of Science in Communications and Management and a Bachelor of Social Work. She brings a wealth of experience in health promotion, communications, public affairs, and mental health advocacy including eating disorders and violence against women. Nicole spent more than two decades working with children, youth, and women to develop healthier life pathways through gaining new skills, confidence, and resiliency. A passionate speaker, Nicole is a fervent promoter of positive psychology, resiliency, and the mind-body connection. Nicole created the Is It Just Me? mental health literacy program, which has reached more than 20,000 students, reducing stigma, and encouraging students to seek help when they need it. Nicole and her team designed two apps, Healthy Minds and Game Ready, which foster mental wellness and coping skills. Nicole sits on a number of non-profit community boards and is a member of the Ontario Hospital Association’s French Language Council and the Hospital Sector Representative of the Réseau, the network advocating quality health care services in French. Nicole is also a recipient of Ottawa’s 40 Under 40 Award.