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Social Media and the Pursuit of Dopamine

Published by St Columba's School, Kilmacolm on Wednesday 4th of January 2023

On the 26th of June, my dad, two other crew members and I set off on a 45-foot sailboat with the mission of sailing to Iceland and back, a journey which could take up to a month to complete.  After sailing from the marina, it took me 15 minutes to realise that I had left my phone in the car. 


Being too scared to ask my dad to turn the boat around, I decided to sit tight and mentally prepared myself for the journey ahead, which I would now be spending without my phone. 


I ended up spending around 2 weeks without my phone and, looking back, if I were to describe that time in one word, it would be 'refreshing'. 


I spent hours and hours watching over the horizon as the boat was thrown up and down by the waves.  I got more enjoyment from the simple things, like a nice sunset, or a good meal.  At times, I had nothing to do but solve a Rubik’s Cube – I got pretty good at it too.


Cut to the present – I am nowhere near as productive as I was before the summer holidays, something my peers have been quick to point out.  I have a much shorter attention span; I find it harder to motivate myself; I don’t get as much enjoyment out of the things as I used to. 


In other words, to be quite honest, I'm in a bit of a rut, and I suspect that there may be many of you who, at times, feel like me.  In an attempt to get out of this rut, I have been trying to figure out what could have caused it in the first place.  The only thing that springs to mind is my media consumption. 


Before the summer holidays, if I wanted to relax, I would watch YouTube videos, often around 10 to 15 minutes long, or an episode of something on Netflix.  But after the sailing trip, I fell into the trap of watching TikTok and other apps with the same style of quick-fire content. 


But I still hadn’t gotten to the bottom of why I was feeling so unmotivated.  This was when I found out about something called dopamine.


Dopamine, for those of you not already aware, is the chemical in our brains that makes us feel “good.”  It’s our brain’s way of rewarding us when we achieve something.  We all have a baseline level of dopamine, which our brains supply to us at a constant rate.  That is until we encounter an external stimulus – a funny video, for example - which causes a surge in dopamine.  At the time, that surge is a great feeling, but what follows is a crash in dopamine levels, which leaves you feeling unmotivated, tired, and craving your next “hit” of dopamine.  This is the basis for most forms of addiction and, in the case of social media, it is what causes a person to keep on scrolling in pursuit of dopamine.


Unfortunately, the more of these surges that a person experiences from an app like TikTok, the lower their baseline levels will be.  This is the position that I find myself in, and where many other young people also find themselves.  The media that most young people are consuming has switched from TV or YouTube, where an individual has to be invested in a storyline to receive, to TikTok and Instagram, where we are being bombarded with information.  This need for instant gratification has resulted in the long-term lowering of baseline dopamine levels, which lowers our attention spans.  Some people are not able to go on a walk without another external source of dopamine, for example, music playing through their headphones.  It also affects our schoolwork, with many being unable to sit down at a desk and focus for more than half an hour.


Now, this may sound quite worrying to some of you, and I’ll admit that I was worried too.  Exams are getting closer and I was concerned that I wasn’t going to get my motivation back in time for prelims.  Then I stumbled across a guy called Andrew Huberman.  He is an American neuroscientist at Stanford University with profound knowledge of dopamine.  After listening to a couple of his podcasts, I’ve decided to try to release myself from the grasp that my phone has on me and take back control of my dopamine levels. 


How am I going to do this?  One of the main things that I have learnt from the podcast is to avoid dopamine-rich activities (like going on my phone) without having worked for it first.  This means only going on my phone after finishing homework or after going on a run.  I will also try my best not to “layer in” multiple sources of dopamine at one time.  For example, not listening to music while exercising, as this layers two sources of dopamine on top of each other – dopamine released from exercising, and dopamine released from music.  Layering like this leads to a reduction in baseline levels and detracts pleasure from the main activity, which is exercising.  I am also going to make a shift towards longer forms of entertainment; from TikTok and Instagram to reading. 


I would encourage you all to look up Andrew Huberman and dopamine to make you more aware of why you may be feeling unmotivated.  You may even choose to take action on these bad habits.  I promise you that you will see drastic improvements in so many aspects of your life if you do.

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