Why do so many people feel the need to constantly check their social media accounts, texts, email, or some other digital connection source for the latest news, comments, likes, photos, GIFs, or videos? When people are not on their smartphones, they are probably thinking about getting back on these devices that seem to connect them to the whole wide world.
The primary reason why people are seemingly addicted to their digital devices is related to dopamine releases in their brains. Dopamine is a compound that is present in our bodies as a neurotransmitter (or “brain messenger of feelings and thoughts”) that is a precursor of various other substances such as epinephrine (akin to an “adrenaline rush” or a feeling of being high from drug use, sex, or sports activities). As such, you literally do get a “rush” when on your digital devices, and may end up feeling lonely, depressed, and lacking basic energy levels if you are not on your digital devices.
Dopamine helps us feel pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction while also inspiring or motivating us to seek out certain behaviors or activities that fuel this internal passion that is partly driven by increasing dopamine levels. In somewhat of a “which came first – the chicken or egg?” question, did the activity increase the dopamine levels or did the increasing dopamine levels cause us to seek out the dopamine-fueling activities? Various studies are alleging that dopamine makes us feel more aroused and motivated to engage in activities that stimulate our dopamine production levels, and that it is the opioid system in us that makes us feel pleasure.
Dating back to the early years of mankind, we tend to seek pleasure while avoiding pain. Our wants and desires can be influenced more by dopamine levels while our likes and pleasurable experiences are inspired more by the opioid receptors in our brain that catch the neurotransmitters that pass along the feelings and thoughts. The near instantaneous responses on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram from friends and family drive our need and desire for more dopamine and opioid connections.
The well-known Pavlov’s Bell (or Pavlov’s Dogs) study about programming and conditioning animals and people to responses based upon links to sound was conducted by a Russian scientist named Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936). The short description of this study was that every single time it was time for food for the dogs in the lab, Dr. Pavlov would ring the bell. As the dogs got used to the sound of the bell, they would automatically begin to salivate in anticipation of the food whether it was put out or not. To the dogs, the bell became a forerunner sound to salivating more so than the food itself.
The 21st century version of Pavlov’s Bell is the sounds that our smartphones, computers, and other technological devices make each time that someone likes or comments on our posts, emails, or texts that we had sent out to the cyberspace world earlier in the day. The fairly loud bell ring made on Facebook for each comment made to our post is an obvious sign of the power of Pavlov’s Bell, and how we all are conditioned to respond, positively or negatively, every time that it goes off. If and when the Facebook bell doesn’t ring, then the figurative “abandonment trigger alarm” may go off in our head which is not too pleasant of a sound for anyone whether real or not.
What is truly ironic about digital connections is that it is isolating and dividing up many people in real life. With more Americans and Canadians alleged to have shorter attention spans near just seven (7) seconds per past Microsoft research studies, the increasing time spent on digital connections is driving a wedge between a high number of personal and romantic relationships. With much shorter attention spans today than 10 or 20 years ago, many people lack just basic or minimal impulse control that is causing them to engage in risky behavior (e.g., affairs, drugs, drinking, gambling, road rage, excessive spending), and get “triggered” or incredibly angry prior to disconnecting or splitting up with loved ones or once very close friends over rather trivial or nonsensical reasons. An actual hug from a loved one is much more healing than a “like” response on Facebook from a virtual friend who lives thousands of miles away.
The more that we post on social media, the more that we want responses. Yet, it may take an increasing number of posts and responses over time on social media to gain the same dopamine high from past years, so the need to post and respond more can lead to declining dopamine highs and increasing physical pain from convoluted opioid receptors in a downward spiraling addiction loop. More and more health experts are asking whether or not digital device addictions are actually leading to physical pain problems that are driving more people to get hooked on illegal or legal synthetic versions of opiates or pain pills. What is really craved by most people is love and connections with real people. Salivate or get triggered – the choice is yours!
You Can Ring My Bell song by Anita Ward