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Dopamine Chasing: Why Social Media Leaves you Feeling Empty

A digital fix

Cyber bullying, hate speech, unrealistic standards; it is public knowledge that the upsides of social media are accompanied by plenty of downsides. Besides the obvious hate and negativity, there are many attributes to social media which can detriment people’s mental health. It is important to understand how the stimulating quality of social media can affect the psychology of our brains.

Infamously deemed as ‘digital crack-cocaine’, TikTok is quickly becoming one of the most popular and iconic apps on the internet, enjoyed predominantly by those under the age of 30. The app does not only consist of young people doing strange dances to popular music, but includes billions of distinctive videos, showcased through an intrinsically designed algorithm. Within no other app do I found myself lost down a rabbit hole of farm care videos or prison ‘what I eat in a day’s'. The app’s extremely addictive quality and compelling charm continues to glue me to my screen wondering, why can't stop scrolling?

The feel-good hormone

It is not a hormone which seeks out pleasure, as commonly thought, but a hormone which causes people to want, desire, search, and therefore act. We seek out these pleasurable activities until our brain is satisfied.

The problem occurs when the brain continues to pursue this satisfaction, but is left in a continual loop of seeking, without fulfilment.

Scrolling on social media apps, such as TikTok, will trigger this dopamine seeking loop. These apps are designed to catch the attention of the user, while leaving them unsatisfied. This way, the user will continue to scroll in anticipation of satiation. Unlike other video streaming platforms, such as YouTube, TikTok consists of short clips which only last from around 10 to 60 seconds. While this offers the brain quick and consistent rewards, the user’s attention span is shortened, meaning they seek more dopamine rewards in less time. This results in the feeling of emptiness, and a lack of motivation for the activities which once excited them. Tasks as low maintenance as watching TV are now becoming chores, as they do not offer the same instant reward as a 5 second video. The dopamine seeking nature of social media suggests why it is so popular, but also accounts for the abundance of mental health issues amongst the youth.

Dopamine fasting

Luckily, not all hope is lost for our algorithm enslaved minds.

Dopamine fasting is a method based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, in which the brain becomes less reliant on unhealthy stimuli, such as social media and modern technology.

By giving our minds a break from activities which offer immediate rewards, i.e., TikTok, junk food, porn, etc., and relishing in the feeling of boredom, we will find more pleasure in simpler activities. Consequently, we can reclaim control over how we spend our time, improving motivation for work and fulfilling hobbies. Reconnecting with nature is an amazing activity which supports mental health. Spending adequate time in nature, each week, can lower stress hormone levels and reduce anxiety.

While ‘dopamine fasting’ is a fun and catchy term to describe this technique, it is not scientifically accurate. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and is released in response to any pleasurable activity, so it technically cannot be ‘fasted’. Unlike drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, dopamine cannot be completely avoided to provide a tolerance break. Instead, simply practising healthier activities which provide satisfaction and fulfilment, will lead to an improved mental state, leaving behind the sense of lethargy and emptiness. This technique can be introduced in a way that is minimally disruptive to our everyday lives, for example, choosing to spend the weekend outdoors or refraining from using technology before bed.

It is becoming increasingly evident how social media is changing the way our minds work. Our society has become conditioned to a state of over-stimulation. Taking a break from technology and practising mindfulness may reduce stress and anxiety, and arouse a more gratifying sense of being. Reading a book or beginning a new hobby before bed, instead of wasting 4 hours on your TikTok ‘for you page’, may significantly transform your mindset, sleep and quality of life.

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