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Overcoming Screen Addiction

By Dr Kim Hazendonk

Alternatives for getting your brain 'highs'

Dopamine is a ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter that is made in your brain. It acts on areas of your brain to give you feelings of pleasure, satisfaction, energy and motivation. Everyone has experienced the feel-good sensation of a ‘dopamine high’. We have a baseline level of dopamine circulating in our brains and bodies all the time, which helps determine our mood, our mindset, and how much we lean into life.


Dopamine is a driver for us to seek things. In the past, if we were hungry, we would put in the hard work of growing food (pain) so we could enjoy the reward of eating it (pleasure). There is a system in the brain which works to maintain the balance between pleasure and pain, to maintain ‘homeostasis’. When we experience pain, we get pleasure. But the reverse is also true, and this is how addiction occurs.


These days, there is easy access to high-reward (ie. high dopamine) stimuli, and we can get a dopamine ‘hit’ from such things as food, drugs, gambling, texting, shopping and online gaming. These pleasurable activities release dopamine and make us feel good in the moment. But homeostasis means that there needs to be ‘pain’ to balance this out, to recover equilibrium, and this is how addiction occurs. In other words, after playing video games, I stop playing and I feel flat, so what do I do? Play more video games. And more. And more. Because I keep needing more to get the same dopamine high.  


Dr Anna Lemke, in her book ‘Dopamine Nation’, states that ‘the smartphone is the modern-day hypodermic needle, delivering digital dopamine 24/7.’ We get small dopamine hits from the likes, the comments, the thumbs up and all the small positive interactions we get from our texts and posts. Games are strategically designed with music and graphics to keep us playing, and entertainment articles to keep us reading. The more time we spend on the screen, the more advertisers can target us. That’s the aim, to keep us wired.


Addiction to screens is a concern for our society. It is related to sleep deprivation, decreased ability to sustain attention, increased levels of obesity and reduced social and emotional intelligence. In this time of ever-increasing rates of depression and anxiety, studies show that spending time outdoors can significantly improve overall well-being. Increasing your number of (real vs virtual) friends correlates to higher subjective well-being. Research shows doubling your number of (real) friends is like increasing your income by 50 percent in terms of how happy you feel.


There are alternative activities that we can engage in and habits we can adopt that give us healthy and sustained increases in dopamine.


According to Matt Walker, the world’s sleep expert, sleep is the best stress relief, best trauma release, best immune booster, and best emotional stabiliser. It also replenishes our baseline levels of dopamine. 


Cold water immersion and cold showers increases dopamine level, which is sustained over several hours. It works by pre-conditioning the body to deal with stress before the real stressors come. 


Upon waking, ideally in the first 15 minutes after waking, go outside and get sunlight in your eyes. The best time is when the sun is low in the sky. Light exposure promotes dopamine release, increases mood and promotes better sleep.


Make your work hours bright, especially during the first 8 hours after waking. Turn on the overhead lights. And dim lights from 6pm until bedtime. Viewing bright lights between 10pm and 4am reduces dopamine levels for several days.


Close social connections release oxytocin, which stimulates dopamine pathways. Engage in quality social interactions. Go out in nature. Exercise. Enjoy meals together and eat foods that boost dopamine naturally, such as fish, poultry, green leafy vegetables, eggs, nuts and strawberries. 

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