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Can the ‘Dopamine Detox’ Trend Break a Digital Addiction?

Expert explains social media claims, exploring their basis and downfalls

minute read

Written by Debra Melani on January 20, 2024

No podcasts, videos or Netflix. No junk food, gambling or porn. Video gaming? No way. Instagram? Forget it. Music? Nope. Lock up your phone and hide your earbuds. It’s dopamine detox time, and it’s going to change your life.

That’s the gist of the messages from a large number of posts, blogs and wellness websites out there, all promoting a quick-fix for people’s depressed moods and lack of productivity. Judging by the likes and comments, people are biting, with Reddit even boasting a dopamine-detox support group.

Fad or Fact?

A series exploring current health-related trends through the scientific lenses of our CU Anschutz experts.

See other series articles.

“The idea is to allow our brains a break and reset from potentially addictive things like our phones, the likes, the texts, the beeps, the rings,” said Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “These sorts of things – like the internet, gambling and substance abuse – provide instant dopamine surges, typically unhealthy ones.”

But while the social media trend actually has a psychotherapy basis with a similar goal, its mode to that end is concerning, said Hemendinger, who specializes in treating patients with obsessive-compulsive traits.

The original “dopamine detox,” created by psychologist Cameron Sepah, is based on cognitive behavior therapy, where people learn new skills and coping mechanisms over time. The trending detoxes promise to change people’s lives in seven days (sometimes even 24 hours) with an all-or-nothing approach.

“I’m all for reducing social media and phone time, but I think that some people are taking it like, ‘Oh, I do this, and I’m going to feel instantly better,’ or, ‘In order to do this, I need to be completely off social media, or completely stop talking to people,’” Hemendinger said. “The way it’s being talked about on social media is not what I would support.”

In the following Q&A, Hemendinger shared more about the issue of technology overload and the so-called dopamine-detox solution.

Q&A Header

Sepah reportedly said his name choice of dopamine detox was not to be taken literally. Can you talk more about that and about dopamine?

The terms dopamine detox and dopamine fast are really misleading because dopamine is one of our body’s neurotransmitters. It’s a naturally occurring chemical in our brain, and you can’t get rid of it. Dopamine is involved in our body’s system for reward and motivation and learning and pleasure, and dopamine does rise in response to rewards or pleasurable activities, but avoiding those overstimulating activities doesn’t eliminate it.

So it’s more about taking a step back from being overstimulated and focusing instead on reconnecting with ourselves. Really, what it is, is it’s a repackaged idea of mindfulness and behavior modification.

Some people say they are trying a dopamine detox because they feel burned out, down, not excited about things, not productive. That pretty much describes the side effects of depression. What can you tell us about that similarity?

Our brain’s response to the non-stop stimulation of our phones can be compared to drug addiction. It does create this dependence. And because we are overstimulating it, our brain starts to downregulate our own dopamine production and transmission to bring it back to baseline. And that dopamine deficit can result in feelings like depression and anxiety and all the physical effects of depression, like low motivation, low energy.

So we keep engaging in these behaviors like scrolling on our phones not to feel good and happy but just to feel normal. So taking a break or decreasing the amount of time on our phones will help, but it’s not going to make you feel a million times better in seven days.

So, as with drugs and alcohol, basically people build a tolerance to scrolling or video gaming, etc., and ‘need’ more?

Yes, it’s the same thing. It’s addictive. Scrolling is addictive. The way they have social media set up is really smart, because it keeps us scrolling, and it gives us those instant dopamine surges. And it feels good. It’s like drugs. It’s like eating chocolate. It’s like listening to your favorite song. It’s that instant surge.

So, yes, it’s great to listen to your favorite song to feel better. If I’m feeling down, I know that listening to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ is going to make me feel better because it’s my favorite album. But maybe instead of doing that, there’s a benefit to sitting with that and reflecting on why I’m feeling this way. What’s going on in my life? There’s a benefit to slowing down, putting the phone away, and letting ourselves experience human emotions.

Do you believe, as some people propose, that technology had led to a surge in mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression?

I think it’s a contributing factor. I imagine we are seeing shortened attention spans. People are less likely to be mindful when they are on their phones. How many times have you been talking to someone, and they are on their phone, or they’re looking at TV screens, and they don’t acknowledge you? Even in meetings, people are looking at their phones. I think there’s been a shift in our society, like multi-tasking and not being as mindful, which then leads us to feeling less connected with one other. And we need to feel that connection to ourselves and to others.

Does it come up in your practice?

When I’m talking to someone, and they are saying, ‘Hey, I’m feeling more depressed lately,’ or ‘I’m feeling more anxious lately,’ I’ll go through basics of like, ‘How are you sleeping? How are you eating? Are you using any substances?’ And I also include, ‘How much are you on social media? How much news or media are you consuming?’ That has become part of my checklist of things to go through.

If they are on social media all the time, or they are on their phone all the time, it could be a contributing factor, because they aren’t focusing on anything in the real world. It’s a lack of mindfulness. I think with this dopamine fast/dopamine detox, it should be more about decreasing the thing that there’s a dependence on and instead replacing it with more valued or healthy behaviors or activities that are in line with what you want in life.

Could trying this dopamine detox result in someone realizing they have a bigger mental health problem?

There could be insight. Just like any time you stop an addictive behavior, there’s going to be feelings, there’s going to be thoughts that come up. I like to tell people when we are trying to control our emotions by numbing out with social media – or with drugs, alcohol, eating disorder abuse – it’s like we’re trying to push a beachball underneath the water. And when we stop, that beachball just pops right back up.

So how would you summarize? Dopamine detox: Fad or Fact?

I think it’s helpful to decrease digital time, but the term detox or fast is misleading. If we use it in the original way of cognitive behavioral therapy – reducing maladaptive behaviors and replacing them with better ones – then it’s great. But I think the way that it’s being pitched by the wellness industry and social media isn’t something that’s helpful. This is just another fad that people in the wellness industry are trying to make money off of, when mindfulness is nothing new.

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Emily Hemendinger, MPH, LCSW