“I need you to talk to my husband”, a girlfriend said the other day. “He keeps saying that he wants to get an old Nokia with no internet on it, but has just ordered a new iPhone”. As a coach, I don’t work with anyone unless they come on their own free will, but my friend’s concern raises a very interesting point.
How do we end up getting online even if we don’t want to? And what is the tipping point when a curious internet surfer becomes a ruthless digital addict?
How your brain works
Neuroscience has a painful answer: the more we use technology, the more our brain structure changes, often in a negative way. Brain areas that get affected most by excessive usage of technology are; cognitive abilities, attention and processing of emotions. In other words, if you are a digital addict, you are less able to control your digital behaviour, or never get enough of being online.
According to scientists, a brain of an internet addict shows the same changes as a brain of a drug user. This is especially reflected on how the body “pleasure” hormone, dopamine, gets altered. Dopamine is a chemical produced in our brain that’s responsible for many activities and feelings, from mood and motivation to attention, sleep or - you guessed it - addiction.
Your brain consists of cells called neurons that vary in size and shape, and have a little space between each other. Neurons “talk” to each other by releasing chemical substances, or neurotransmitters, that tell other neurons and the rest of the body cells what to do. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters, and is responsible for producing the sense of pleasure and reinforcement, rewarding the behaviour that allows us to survive and proliferate.
Whenever our brain encounters something that is unusual, it triggers our reward centre to release dopamine. It helps us pay attention to something that stands out and has therefore an important revolutionary impact! For instance, your brain gets instantly rewarded when it get stimulated by an unusual experience, bright colours or tasty food.
With dopamine released, your brain focuses excessively on what caused this stimulation. For your brain, spending time online becomes the most important and exciting thing possible.
An overstimulated brain
Drugs work by stimulating extra dopamine production and/or secretion or preventing the released dopamine from being absorbed by neurons, your brain cells. The more free dopamine circulates in the brain, the more excitement and anticipation you feel, expecting a higher reward - which is never high enough.
The same principle is used by creators of the most popular modern websites and apps. They use tricks to excessively stimulate your brain with new experiences, information, pictures, and trigger your reward centre, rewarding the brain for finding new interesting pictures, or get social approval (i.e. likes). There's a great book called Hooked, which describes creating habit-forming products in detail.
The problem with excessive stimulation is that when a brain gets stimulated too intensely, it starts protecting itself. To do so, it reduces the number of dopamine receptors to become less sensitive to dopamine. It's like as if you were constantly offered too much food, at the end of the day you stop eating anything and can't even look at it. So when you spend too much time online, the number of dopamine transporters or receptors gets reduced. A neuron still releases dopamine, but there are fewer “cars” to transport it to the next neuron and fewer parking slots to park into!
This means that if you keep taking the same dose of drug (or internet), you get less pleasure! You have to increase the dose just to feel anything - so you are likely to spend even longer hours online, looking for more “catchy” content and constantly being distracted. Excessive stimulation makes you feel great in the moment, but your brain pays a higher price later.
It’s been shown that internet addicts have higher reward sensitivity. Further scientific evidence suggests an increase in blood flow in the reward and pleasure centres of the brain of an internet addict, and a decrease in the areas responsible for hearing and visual processing of information.
What to do about it?
Do you suspect you might be an internet addict? Take this short test to find it out!
If you discover you're an addict, first of all, stop blaming yourself for not being productive or not being able to unplug. There's a whole industry studying how your brain works and developing products based on it to influence your behaviour. So most of your actions have already been programmed a long time before you've bought your iPhone.
Because your brain structure might have changed, you can't just quit. Our will power is limited, and we have too many temptations to resist throughout the day. Do you see now why my friend’s husband is finding it so hard to get rid of his smartphone?
In the next posts, I'll cover some of the most effective methods to stop internet addiction. IF you want to be the first one to find out about them, sign up for our free tips below!
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Dr Anastasia Dedyukhina is a keynote speaker, author of Homo Distractus, professional coach and a pioneer of the Consciously Digital™ concept.