Dopamine Detox – How Social Media Messes With the Biochemistry in Your Brain

Dopamine Detox – How Social Media Messes With the Biochemistry in Your Brain

In the age of smartphones and constant connectivity, our lives are more intertwined with social media than ever before. From Instagram to Twitter, the allure of these platforms lies in their ability to captivate your attention and provide instant gratification in the form of “happiness hormones”. But what many of us fail to recognize is the profound impact this constant stimulation has on the biochemistry of our brains, particularly concerning the neurotransmitter dopamine. In this article, CARE will delve into the fascinating world of dopamine and explore how social media can both hijack and alter its delicate balance. More importantly, we'll discuss practical strategies for a dopamine detox and regaining back control over your mental well-being.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in Mental Health
9 min read · Jan 30, 2024

Hero Image

Table of content

What Is a Dopamine Detox?

You have probably heard about a digital detox already, right? But what exactly is a digital detox?

A digital detox is a deliberate and temporary break from using electronic devices and online activities. It involves you consciously disconnecting from digital screens, such as smartphones, computers, and tablets, to reduce the impact of constant connectivity on your mental well-being.  [1]

Aside from the disconnection from technical devices, people often engage in offline activities, such as spending time outdoors, reading books, or participating in face-to-face interactions, to foster a healthier relationship with the real world.

This intentional disconnection is supposed to provide you with a mental reset, allowing you to recharge and gain perspective on your relationship with technology.

Understanding Dopamine – What Does Dopamine Do to You?

Blog detail image

Dopamine is crucial in our motivation, reward, and pleasure pathways and is typically hailed as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. It's released in response to various stimuli, such as achieving a goal, receiving positive feedback, or experiencing something enjoyable.

Social media, through its system of likes, comments, and notifications, stimulates dopamine receptors in the brain, creating a cycle of reward and reinforcement that contributes to addictive patterns of use.

Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, admitted to an audience of Stanford students that he feels “tremendous guilt” as he was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior. “ The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” Palihapitiya explained. [2]

But how exactly are dopamine and social media intertwined?

The Dopamine-Social Media Connection

Blog detail image

Social media platforms like Instagram or TikTok lead to dopamine highs and are expertly designed to trigger dopamine release in your brain. Every like, comment, and share or even a short and funny reel activates your reward system, leading to a surge of dopamine. This immediate positive reinforcement creates a cycle of seeking more engagement, perpetuating the addictive nature of these platforms. [3]

The constant influx of information and notifications keeps our brains on high alert, contributing to a state of chronic arousal that can be detrimental to our mental health. Several studies indicate that an increased social media use is connected to anxiety, low self-esteem and depression. [4]

But not only social media causes unhealthy and unnatural dopamine highs – binge-watching and video games are also bad habits that lead to excessive dopamine production and can become addictive activities.

The Dopamine Dilemma – Depression & Anxiety

While dopamine is essential for our well-being, an excess or imbalance can lead to negative consequences. The overstimulation of the dopamine system, as seen in the context of social media, can result in addictive behaviors, anxiety, impulsive behaviors, and even depression. [1] [4]

The constant pursuit of virtual rewards can leave us feeling unfulfilled in the real world as the natural, slower-paced pleasures struggle to compete with the instant gratification provided by our digital devices. Therefore, for some people, social media and certain apps can lead to a behavioral addiction or compulsive behaviors.

Maybe you even heard that social media is said to cause ADHD, but is this really true?

While social media use itself doesn't cause ADHD, excessive and prolonged exposure can contribute to attention-related issues or exacerbate symptoms in people already predisposed to ADHD. Studies also show that people with ADHD are predisposed to spend more time on social media. [5]

By now, a dopamine detox seems like a great idea, right?

How Does a Dopamine Detox Work?

Blog detail image

Recognizing the impact of social media on our dopamine levels is the first step toward a healthier relationship with technology.

During a dopamine detox, you intentionally avoid the stimuli that trigger excessive dopamine release, allowing your brain to recalibrate and regain sensitivity to natural rewards.

Dr. Cameron Sepah, a clinical psychologist and professor, gained recognition for popularizing the concept of a dopamine fast. He became known for his dopamine-fasting approach through his work in Silicon Valley, where he advised tech professionals on managing digital addiction and improving mental well-being. [6]

Dr. Sepah's dopamine fast involves abstaining from stimulating activities, such as social media and electronic devices, aiming to recalibrate the brain's sensitivity to dopamine and encourage a healthier balance in the age of constant digital connectivity.

CARE has summarized the best digital detox strategies for you: [1]

  • Digital Minimalism – Cleanse Your Screens

Embrace the philosophy of digital minimalism by cleansing your online life. Unfollow accounts that don't add value to your well-being, mute notifications, and do not engage in IT that makes you feel bad or drains your energy.

  • Scheduled Screen Time – An IT-Free Lunch Break

Set specific times during the day for checking out of social media and staying off your screens. Avoid mindless scrolling during idle moments and designate certain periods for intentional, focused engagement, like an IT-free lunch break. [1]

  • Mindful Consumption – Positivity, please

Be mindful of the content you consume. Instead of passively scrolling, actively engage with posts that promote positivity, learning, and genuine connection. Limit exposure to content that triggers negative emotions or unrealistic comparisons.

  • Real-World Connections – Face-to-Face

Do you have more “friends” online than offline? Foster meaningful relationships that take place in the real world. Spend quality time with friends and family, engage in face-to-face conversations, and participate in activities that bring joy without the need for virtual validation.

  • Tech-Free Zones – Establish Traditions

Did your parents tell you “no phones at the dinner table”? Well, they were quite right. Designate specific areas or times in your daily routine as tech-free zones, like an IT-free dinner each night. Create a sanctuary free from digital distractions, allowing your brain to unwind and reset.

  • Hobbies and Passions – Leave Your Phone

Rediscover or develop hobbies that bring you genuine pleasure and that do not involve any technology or screens. Whether it's reading, painting, or playing a musical instrument, engaging in activities that align with your passions can provide a natural boost of dopamine and give your brain the time to detox from social media & co.

  • Complete Detox – Take an IT-Free Vacation

If this is something that you have the luxury to do, why not take a 2-3 week vacation and immerse yourself in nature and mindfulness? There are several remote retreats worldwide that specialize in offering technology-free vacations.

What Are the Benefits of a Dopamine Detox?

Blog detail image

Engaging in a digital detox offers numerous benefits for both mental and physical well-being. Firstly, it helps alleviate the mental fatigue and stress associated with constant exposure to screens, allowing your brain to rest, recover and recharge. [1]

Since the blue light emitted by digital devices can disrupt your circadian rhythm and negatively impact your sleep quality, a digital detox, especially before bedtime, promotes better sleep by reducing exposure to artificial light. [7]

Additionally, limiting screen time can mitigate the overstimulation of the brain's reward system, particularly the release of dopamine, which is associated with social media use. [1]

Beyond the already mentioned aspects, a digital detox fosters improved focus, productivity, and the cultivation of meaningful real-world connections, contributing to a more balanced and fulfilling life. [3]

  • Enhanced Mental Well-Being:

A digital detox allows your brain to unwind and reduces the mental fatigue associated with constant screen exposure. By taking a break from digital stimuli, you give your mind the opportunity to recharge, leading to improved mental clarity, reduced stress levels, and enhanced overall well-being. [1]

  • Improved Sleep Quality:

The blue light emitted by digital screens can interfere with the production of the sleep hormone melatonin, disrupting your circadian rhythm. A digital detox, especially in the hours leading up to bedtime, helps regulate sleep patterns and improves the quality of your sleep, contributing to better overall health. [7[

  • Increased Productivity and Focus:

Limiting digital distractions allows for better concentration and increased productivity. Without constant interruptions from notifications and social media, you can focus on tasks more effectively, resulting in a higher quality of work and a greater sense of accomplishment. [1]

  • Improved Mental Health:

Continuous engagement with social media and digital platforms leads to an overstimulation of the brain's reward system, particularly the release of dopamine. This is associated with mental health issues like depression, anxiety and mood disruptions. A digital detox helps reset your sensitivity to dopamine, reducing the risk of anxiety and promoting mental health. [1]

  • Strengthened Real-World Connections:

Taking a break from the virtual world encourages more face-to-face interactions and genuine connections with friends, family, and colleagues. By fostering real-world relationships, you not only combat feelings of social isolation but also experience the authentic joy that comes from shared experiences and meaningful connections.

Dopamine Detox – How Long Should a Dopamine Detox Be?

Blog detail image

The ideal period of time for your dopamine detox depends on your personal goals and objectives. You might choose a short, intensive detox spanning a day or a weekend, or you could opt for a more extended period, such as a week or a month. Some people even find it beneficial just to designate specific times of their day to be IT-free.

The crucial factor is finding a balance that allows for a meaningful reset of your dopamine sensitivity without causing unnecessary stress or disruption to your daily life—tailoring the detox to suit your unique needs and goals.

What Are the Potential Side Effects of a Dopamine Detox?

  • Initial Discomfort and Irritability:

When undergoing a dopamine detox, especially if you are accustomed to frequent digital stimulation and dopamine highs, you may experience initial discomfort and irritability if you have become addicted to social media. This is a natural response as your brain adjusts to reduced dopamine levels. It's important to recognize these feelings as temporary and part of the recalibration process. [1]

  • Boredom and Restlessness:

As the detox involves cutting down on activities that typically provide instant gratification, such as scrolling through social media or binge-watching, you may encounter periods of boredom and restlessness. These feelings may arise as your brain adapts to a slower pace and seeks alternative sources of stimulation. Embracing new hobbies or activities during this period can help you alleviate these sensations.

  • Increased Awareness of Emotions:

Without the constant distraction of digital stimuli, you may become more attuned to your emotions, including stress or anxiety, which were previously masked by constant engagement with screens. While this heightened awareness is a positive aspect of the detox, it can initially be challenging to navigate. Developing mindfulness practices, such as meditation or journaling, can aid in processing and managing these emotions effectively. [8]

Optimize Your Mental & Physical Well-Being with CARE

Prioritize your wellness and mental health through regular Health Check-ups and blood analysis with CARE. By proactively monitoring your key health indicators, you gain valuable insights that empower you to make informed lifestyle choices.

Incorporating a digital detox alongside these preventive measures allows you to strike a balance, reducing the potential stressors associated with constant screen exposure and fostering a holistic approach to well-being. Our CARE healthcare professionals will be happy to consult you on a digital detox and other potential health improvements that you might want to make.

List of References

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!