This post was originally published on Michigan Chronicle

It’s no surprise that digital addictions are becoming a very real problem.  

According to national statistics, typically, a person in the U.S. spends around five hours on their smartphone as kids and teenagers spend 5.7 hours. Nearly 92 percent of Americans think that smartphone addiction is real. 

The Aspen Brain Institute reports in an article, Digital Addictions Are Drowning Us in Dopamine, that increased usage of digital devices are not only making people more connected now than ever before – but also equally depressed. 

“Rising rates of depression and anxiety in wealthy countries like the U.S. may be a result of our brains getting hooked on the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure,” according to the article, which added that more young people are suffering from anxiety and depression. Twenty years ago, where a person would have been prescribed some medication, doctors should now consider recommending a dopamine fast: staying away from all screens, including videogames, for one month. 

Dr. Anna Lembke wrote in the article that throughout her career as a psychiatrist, she has noticed a growing amount of patients who suffer from depression and anxiety, where normally they would be “healthy young people with loving families, elite education and relative wealth.”  

“Their problem isn’t trauma, social dislocation or poverty. It’s too much dopamine, a chemical produced in the brain that functions as a neurotransmitter, associated with feelings of pleasure and reward,” she was quoted as saying in the article. “When we do something we enjoy … the brain releases a little bit of dopamine and we feel good. But one of the most important discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the past 75 years is that pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain and that the brain tries hard to keep them in balance. Whenever it tips in one direction it will try hard to restore the balance, which neuroscientists call homeostasis, by tipping in the other.” 

Lembke said that the brain tries hard to keep the pleasure and pain parts of the brain balanced, yet it is hard to keep that regulation when more and more dopamine is being released with the usage of electronic devices. When an increase of dopamine starts, the brain “adapts to it by reducing or downregulating the number of dopamine receptors that are stimulated,” she said, adding that the brain levels out by “tipping to the side of pain.”  

“Which is why pleasure is usually followed by a feeling of hangover or comedown,” Lembke said, adding that if a person can wait long enough, that feeling goes away and neutrality “is restored.”  

“But there’s a natural tendency to counteract it by going back to the source of pleasure for another dose,” Lembke said, adding that when this consistent level of digital interactions keep up for hours on end the brain rewires itself. “Now we need to keep playing games, not to feel pleasure but just to feel normal. As soon as we stop, we experience the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance: anxiety, irritability, insomnia, dysphoria and mental preoccupation with using, otherwise known as craving.” 

Lembke added that people’s brains have worked themselves out over time to run on low pleasures and alert for dangers she described as ever-present. Today, those former threats and being on high alert is not always the case. 

“Instead, we now live in a world of overwhelming abundance. The quantity, variety and potency of highly reinforcing drugs and behaviors has never been greater,” she said, adding that sugar and opioids and electronic addictions are in abundance. Lembke, who says texting, tweeting, online shopping and gambling is just a phone tap away are all “engineered to be addictive” with attractive lights, sounds and “likes.” 

“Yet despite increased access to all of these feel-good drugs, we’re more miserable than ever before. Rates of depression, anxiety, physical pain and suicide are increasing all over the world, especially in rich nations,” she said, with statistics that back it up, too. 

According to the World Happiness Report, which ranks 156 countries on their happiness meter, Americans reported being less happy in 2018 than they were in 2008. Other wealthy countries saw similar decreases in self-reported happiness scores, including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Japan, New Zealand and Italy. The Global Burden of Disease study found that the number of new cases of depression world-wide increased 50 percent between 1990 and 2017. 

Lembke said it’s sometimes hard to see how running after a digital dopamine can undermine one’s mental health, but it can be done. Just put down the phone. 

“It’s only after we’ve taken a break from our drug of choice that we’re able to see the true impact of our consumption on our lives,” Lembke said. 

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