We’ve all been there: eyes glazed over, clicking on link after link, surfing the net long after we forgot what we were looking for. Why do we do it? Why can’t we just turn off the screen and walk away? The good news is, scientists know exactly what’s behind all that compulsive clicking. The bad news? Your brain’s own circuits are sabotaging your efforts to stop.
The idea of tech addiction is nothing new. There are urban legends of gamers who are so addicted to playing that they’ll go for days without moving?sometimes even dropping dead in front of their screens. At the less extreme end, there are the millions of people who walk into traffic or walls with their eyes glued to a device. Or blink, eyes burning, at a tiny screen in their darkened bedroom because they simply can’t seem to stop clicking.
Rest assured, it isn’t your fault. In fact, the Internet seems tailor-made for feeding something known as a dopamine loop. Contrary to popular belief, dopamine isn’t the brain chemical that makes you feel good. Those are opioids. Dopamine, on the other hand, is the neurotransmitter that motivates you to chase things down. As this Science Daily article explains, it “regulates motivation, causing individuals to initiate and persevere to obtain something either positive or negative.”
Think of a rat in a maze, hitting a lever to get a piece of cheese. Or a person surfing the web, clicking, surfing, checking email, tweeting, posting?all in an endless loop, chasing the reward of a new text message or updated Facebook feed. Any little snippet of newness that will make those opioids hit us with a jolt of feel-good chemicals.
There is, of course, a cost to all that seeking. In a Psychology Today article, Dr. Susan Weinschenk explains that getting caught in endless dopamine loops can be “exhausting.” Our brains are constantly making decisions; evaluating information, skipping from one thing to the next. We’re working hard, on the chase, but the more we get those tiny rewards the more our brains are driven to seek. It can easily become a cycle that wears us out but feels impossible to break.
So what’s the average online citizen supposed to do when they find themselves caught in that loop, mindlessly clicking long after they’ve stopped being interested in what’s on the screen, while that tiny voice in their head says it’s really tired of this game and just wants to go stare at a tree?
In a perfect world?or at least one in which you have a lot of control over your day?you could follow Dr. Weinschenk’s advice to “turn off the cues.” It’s good advice. Shut down your Twitter feed. Close your email program. Slowly start breaking the habit you probably spend most of your day reinforcing.
Unfortunately, not everyone can do that. At least not if their work requires them to be tied to their email and smartphones all day. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine a time when tech addiction becomes a recognized medical condition?and a legitimate cause for long-term disability leave.
Either way, understand that there’s some hard science behind that compulsion to follow link after link. Be aware that constant digital connection is helping your brain to form deep-seated, tiring habits. And whenever you can, make a deliberate effort to break that surfing, clicking dopamine loop. Because cat videos are only fun until you become the rat caught in a maze.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.[ei