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The role of dopamine in social media: Feeding an addiction?

It’s no secret that social media has most of us hooked. The Drum Network reported consumers spent 50 days a year in 2019 on smartphones; Instagram’s ‘Like’ button was hit an average of 4.2 billion times a day; and we all-too-often look up from our phones and wonder where the last hour has gone: some of us would be shocked to see our weekly screen time topping 30 hours!

What is it about social media that keeps us addicted? And why do we crave the buzz of receiving a notification, like or retweet so much? Neuroscientific research indicates that our brains are hard-wired to crave these positive online interactions, and that our social media habits are driven by subconscious brain mechanisms.

Behavioural neuroscientists have connected our social media habits to dopamine, a neurotransmitter in our brain central to a cycle of reward, motivation and addiction. Dopamine, at the heart of all our habits, is activated when we get an unexpectedly good reward.

Boundless Mind co-founder Ramsey Brown explains, “Dopamine is our brain’s way of recording what’s worth doing again… it’s how we learn from our positive experiences.” Dopamine is released in response to eating or having sex, but our dopamine system can’t distinguish between evolutionarily useful habits - such as feeding ourselves - and harmful ones. When dopamine is released in response to the wrong trigger, it can strengthen our habits to the point of addiction.

On social media, a reward (a notification, like or retweet) triggers our brains to send dopamine along a reward pathway, which makes us feel good. Social media grants us these immediate rewards for minimal effort. What’s more, this positive online feedback is delivered randomly: sometimes, when we check social media there’s something exciting waiting for us (a ‘reward’), and sometimes there’s not. This unpredictability keeps us coming back, and the dopamine-triggering behaviour becomes a habit.

This brain response is the same type of chemical reaction that occurs when gambling or using recreational drugs: just like a gambling or drug addiction, our social media habits alter the reward pathways in our brains. Brain scans of social media addicts are comparable to those with drug-addictions. Silicon valley insider Aza Raskin has even compared the pull of social media to a kind of ‘behavioural cocaine’. And much like the gambling industry, the lasting success of social media platforms is based on its users constantly seeking out these unpredicted rewards online.

If you haven’t already paused while reading this article to check up on social media, it’s likely you might after reading this. Granted, social media platforms are a unique opportunity for widespread social connection and the sharing of information, but there are things we can do to develop a healthier relationship with our devices. Apple’s ‘screen time’ feature lets users monitor daily time expenditure on different apps, and can set a daily limit on social media usage. Tech experts explain that changing your phone’s display to monochrome eliminates the light and colour that we associate with receiving a notification, which can lessen the addicting pull of social media.

This article was brought to you by Dig Detox. Our mission is to help people use technology safely because we believe health is your most valuable asset. Please visit for more articles, research and information about the movement.

By Effie Webb

University of Oxford

First published on 27 April 2020


The Drum Network

Smartphones: The Dark Side. Panorama, BBC

Business 2 Community

BBC Science Focus

BBC News, Technology


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