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It’s easy to think that only people who make a series of bad choices become addicts. After all, hard work in recovery seems to switch things around for even the most hardcore addict. But brain research is uncovering processes that demonstrate the same areas in the brain for drug addiction are activated when using social media and other addictive behaviors. For some, genetic inheritance makes them particularly susceptible. Psychological research is also showing the environment plays a big role in sustaining addictive behaviors. Further, using an addictive substance can change your brain wiring immediately. With each use, that change becomes even more pronounced. That means that one momentary lapse of decision-making alters the way you experience reward and punishment. That is why experts say addiction is a disease rather than a moral failing. Once bitten, the addictive drug or behavior behaves more like a disease process. Overcoming the symptoms becomes far more difficult than a simple choice. In today’s article find out the brain processes behind addiction to understand how we are all susceptible. Then I explain the importance the environment plays on addictive behaviors and theories from the father of positive psychology, Martin Seligman. After reading the article, you will know the secret inoculation to online addictions…and it’s not what you’d expect.

What is a behavioral addiction?

Behavioral addictions involve behaviors like gambling, video gaming, shopping, exercise, food, and internet and social media use. “Our brains are made to respond to rewards, which then motivates our actions. Rewards are a brilliant solution to ensure we will do behaviors that are indispensable for the individual and the species.”[1]

For our ancestors, finding foods that tasted sweet meant the food was safe to eat and triggered a rewarding, pleasurable feeling. Once rewarded, we encode a pleasant experience to memory. Now the memory is pleasurable even when the food is nowhere around. In our modern on-demand society, we are surrounded by virtual rewards on our screens, including data about the steps we walk, the calories we eat, and the likes on social media.[2]

Dopamine’s role in reward and punishment has helped us survive.

The neurotransmitter, dopamine, is a primary factor behind reward and punishment. This chemical is released in our brains when we encounter an uncomfortable stimulus, like being chased by a bear, or pleasurable stimulus, like finding berries in the wilderness. Once stimulated, we remember that information for future use. Evolutionarily speaking, these actions helped us identify edible foods, select the right partners, and avoid predators.

Dopamine is also involved in other critical functions, including movement, memory, attention, motivation, arousal, and sleep regulation.[3] Not only is dopamine released when we experience pleasure, but neuroscientists have also found that simply anticipating a reward causes dopamine release. In some circumstances, almost getting the reward is even more reinforcing than actually experiencing the reward. For example, we may be rewarded for posting on social media just by anticipating the “likes” we may receive. Another example was recognized by Netflix producers. They discovered that watching a series cliffhangers is just as satisfying to customers as watching the problem being solved during the following episode.[4]

With periodic dopamine stimulation from experiencing reward, anticipating a reward, and remembering reward, the stage is set to develop behavioral addictions.

The conditioned response of dopamine release makes leaving a rewarding task harder to do. So we seek it, keep on doing it, and miss it when we don’t have it.

How does our evolutionary-based brain wiring lead to behavioral addiction?

In a study conducted at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Volkow found behavioral and substance addicted individuals showed a reduction in dopamine D2 receptors. These receptors regulate the frontal part of our brain that allows us to exert self-control. With repeated and frequent administrations of dopamine, the brain progressively loses these D2 receptors.[5] With the desensitization due to lost receptors, we experience a “ludic loop,” a kind of hypnotic state that occurs when we are hooked in doing something with no real reward. Being in a ludic loop is like being trapped in an empty state of limbo, which is characteristic of addictive behavior.[6] The first high sets the trap, and from then on you are simply going through the motions unable to get out.

Furthermore, these brain patterns tap into the oldest parts of our reptilian brain as well as the newer cerebral cortex that surrounds it. With addiction highjacking the emotional seat of our brain (the limbic system) and our control center (the prefrontal region), we lock into reward pursuit and avoid actions that are less likely to bring a reward.[7] Our wiring is built to lock us into these patterns based on evolutionary principles.

Our environment also makes a difference.

A classic 1950s experiment that illustrates addiction involves rats pushing a lever for water or water laced with cocaine. Rats will choose water laced with cocaine over all other stimuli, resulting in a dead rat. But in the 1970s, a psychologist named Bruce Alexander noticed that these experiments were always done in empty cages. Nothing in the rat’s environment was meaningful but the drug. He wondered if this was because of the appeal of drug or could it be because of the environment they were in?

He tested his theory by building “rat parks,” where the rats had everything that makes a rat’s life worth living. They were equipped with exercise wheels, colored balls, and other rats to socialize and mate with. Then he set up the two kinds of waters. The researcher found that when the experiment was administered in “rat park”, the rats had stopped preferring the water with the drug in it. He took this outcome as an illustration that a meaningful environment can influence the pursuit of addictive behaviors. “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it is a sense of meaning and connection with others.”[8]

The brain hacks baked into screen technology and how they are impacting us.

In the digital age, we have multiple real-life and virtual identities where cookies mean very different things. We are motivated by online rewards just as we are offline. Programmers and developers have found ways to continually bombard us with new types of rewards like “likes” on social media and “kills” in video games. The first time these activities brought us pleasure, a path was forged for compulsive reward-seeking online.

It’s not unhealthy to seek pleasure that has meaning and brings you happiness, the problem is that the resulting addictive behaviors rarely provide us with meaning. The passion fades to a dull pursuit of something less than we felt initially. It’s the classic chasing of that first high.

To reverse that process, some must detox from that behavior and cultivate an environment rich in meaning so we do not return to the addictive cycle. Instead of a sterile room with one lever that delivers digital cocaine, we must invest in a room rich with opportunity for creativity, socialization, good food, exercise, rejuvenating sleep, productivity, and play.

Three Paths to Happiness

Dr. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, studies resilience. He believes there are three paths for the pursuit of happiness, the pleasant life, the good life, and the meaningful life. To inoculate oneself from addiction, one must have a good or meaningful life characterized by personal meaning.

The Pleasant Life

Dr. Seligman describes the pleasant life as the pursuit of pleasurable things. This life revolves around the “ludic loops” of social media likes, endless dating, partying, and learning the skills to amplify them. This life is “not very modifiable.” It makes one vulnerable to routine, addictions, and obsession.

Online, people are extrinsically rewarded through the “likes” of other people and “views” they obtained in their profiles, continuing the habit even after knowing they no longer want to.[9] The person becomes unable to reliably predict when the behavior will occur, how long it will go on, and when it will stop. The problem with the life of pleasure is that it’s hedonistic and lacks meaningfulness.

The Good Life

Dr. Seligman describes the good life with having an “engagement to one’s work, where the individual may be so involved in his craft, that time stops for him,” a harmonious passion where the individual works to strive without the need of feeling obligated or forced. [10]  There are no positive emotions, instead it is characterized by flow, a concept first identified by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990.

Flow is a mental state of intense concentration where the individual is incredibly focused on an enjoyable activity. They are, “in the zone.” This idea has been around for thousands of years and was predominate in eastern cultures. Flow is distinct from pleasure because, during flow, you can’t feel anything.

The Meaningful Life

Dr. Seligman explains the meaningful life as when an individual knows their highest strengths and use them to belong to and be of the service to something larger than themselves.[13] This is important because it provides an individual meaning in life through helping others and having a positive effect in the world, something a life of pleasure cannot provide.

We can’t rely on technology to give us meaning.

Technology is great for instant gratification when we need it. It’s not only the screen itself that is so addictive but the content that is accessible on it. We use technology when we have a psychological need when we feel confused about what to do next, or when we feel we have no effect on the world. Adam Atler describes how these are the moments when we’re most prone to developing behavioral addictions. He analogizes technology as being an “adult pacifier. It soothes and calms our minds by delivering small hits of bottomless entertainment and information.”[14] It characterizes a pleasurable life.

Of course, screens and technology are not all bad. They enable us to be connected with our loved ones and offer apps for health, reading, exercise, meditation, the weather, and education. Technology isn’t the source of meaning, rather it is a bridge to the tasks that bring us meaning, the tasks that allow us to develop a skill and have a positive effect on the world.

Are you using tech as a bridge to a meaningful life, or are you still stuck in the pursuit of pleasure?

Thanks to Andrew Weissmann for writing this important GKIS article.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

[1] Why we get addicted? TEDMED By: Nora Volkow

[2] Irresistible By: Adam Atler

[3] 2-min. Neuroscience: Dopamine By Neuroscientifically Challenged

[4] Irresistible By: Adam Atler

[5] ncbi.nlm.nih.gov Imaging the Addicted Human Brain by J.S. Fowler, N.D. Volkow, C.A. Kassed, L. Chang

[6] Medium.com By Matilda Zhang

[7] 2-min Neuroscience: Nucleus Accumbens by Neuroscientifically Challenged

[8] Ted Talk Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong by Johann Hari

[9] Science Saturday Why do We Get Addicted?

[10] Ted The new era of Positive Psychology By Martin Seligman

[11] Ted The new era of Positive Psychology By Martin Seligman

[12] Ted The new era of Positive Psychology By Martin Seligman

[13] Ted The new era of Positive Psychology By Martin Seligman

[14] Big Think Digital Addiction: How Half the Developed World Got Hooked on the Internet By Adam Atler

Photo Credits

  1. unsplash by jeshoots.com
  2. flickr by Lucy Finle
  3. flickr by Dr. Jonathan B. Lauter
  4. flickr by NIH Image Gallery
  5. flickr by Kristin Gao
  6. flickr by Mike Licht
  7. Chris Weissmann by Zach Haggy
  8. burst.shopify.com by Nicole De Khors
Andrew Weissmann
Andrew Weissmann
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