smartphone and man

No longer used just for entertainment, electronic devices have become the foundation for how we communicate, pay bills, learn, earn money, shop, and more. But grossly overlooked is the problem of overuse that causes them to quite literally become drug-like.

Whether for work or play, most people spend anywhere between 10-12 hours a day and more using different types of digital media devices. While staring at the screen of your TV, smart phone or computer seems harmless enough, this activity actually causes huge boosts in dopamine. This is important to know because dopamine is the "feel-good" or "happy" neurotransmitter that is part of your brain's reward system.

More On Dopamine

dopamine chemical structure

Dopamine is involved in many body functions, including body movement, blood circulation, digestion, pain processing, and heart and kidney function. But it plays a key role in how we process pleasure in the brain, become motivated, find things interesting, and use our ability to think and plan.

When we experience pleasure, the brain floods the body with dopamine to reinforce the pleasureable experience. In this way, we learn to seek out those situations and experiences in life that are pleasurable.

There is a delicate balance of dopamine in the body but it's typically well-regulated within the nervous system. In higher concentrations, it motivates you to repeat a specific behavior. In contrast, lower concentrations reduce motivation and decrease enthusiasm for things that most people find pleasurable.

A variety of inputs stimulate the release of dopamine, including food, sex, drugs, music, laughter, hugs, kisses, winning a prize, earning a promotion, and more. Even if the behavior becomes harmful to our health and wellbeing, if a large spike in dopamine is triggered it reinforces us to seek out those experiences, again and again. Indeed, this reinforcement mechanism can easily lead us to engage in unhealthy behavior or abuse, and eventually even addiction.

Screen Addiction: 21st Century High

hand holding cell phone, man stressed out

Studies have shown that staring at the screen of digital devices for long periods of time satisfies your natural dopamine reward system in a way that is very similar to cocaine use. Like cocaine, repeatedly staring at the screen of digital devices over the long-term also raises the threshold for this kind of pleasure. The result is you must seek out more screen time to reach the same level of pleasure or "high".

Meanwhile, by increasing screen time use, your body can become less able to produce dopamine naturally. Overtime, this can cause the need to spend even more hours staring at your device or computer screen in order to feel the same pleasure or reward, creating a never-ending loop of screen addiction.

Unplugging From Electronic Devices

unplugging brain device

Screen addiction can lead to problems with sleep and mood, and a decrease in physical and social activity. When not allowed to check their texts or emails, or connect to digital technology in any way, many people even develop withdrawal symptoms typically seen in those addicted to cigarettes or other substances.

But as long as you are mindful to set up boundaries that limit your screen time, it is possible to decrease your risk of suffering from the ill effects of screen addiction. Here are a few guideline to help you get started:

Set daily time limits – Agree and commit to a set amount of time that you absolutely must use your various digital devices for either work or play, then consider shaving off 15 minutes every day until you settle into a minimum amount of screen time needed to complete your work and have fun.

Step away from your device – Be sure to take frequent breaks from your device. Ideally you should be taking a 15-20 minute break for every one hour block of screen time.

Perform a 24-hour "digital detox" once per week – commit to ignoring your phone, laptop screen, or other tech devices for a full 24-hour period at least once a week.

Create a device-free bedroom zone – Don’t use any device in the bedroom, where it is tempting to reach for it first thing in the morning or at night when you're having trouble sleeping. Stop screen time one hour before bed and do not jump on your device until one hour after waking up.

Don't use devices while eating your meals – Take the time to focus on what you're eating and putting into your body.

Learn to meditate – Meditating between 30 minutes to 1 hour per day can help rebalance the concentration of dopamine in your body, leading to a reduction in anxiety symptoms, improved mood, lowered blood pressure, improved focus and concentration, and more. Click here get started with a simple beginner meditation exercise.


About the Author

authorRene M. Rodriguez is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine and board licensed acupuncturist with 20 years experience in alternative natural medicine. He's in private practice in Los Angeles, CA, specializing in digestive disorders, skin conditions, infections, environmental illness, and mind-body health and wellness. For more information, please click here.

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