How the apps on your smartphone affect your dopamine levels

by George Lovell | | 0 comments

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which is released in the brain when we experience pleasure - from food, exercise, social interactions etc. In an evolutionary context, it rewards us for behaviours that support our survival and reproduction. It's also associated with motivation to seek out and repeat these actions - in one study, mice that have had their dopamine production blocked will sooner starve to death then walk across the room to get food. Powerful.

Apps; social media platforms in particular; are free, and rely on advertising to generate revenue. The best way to maximise this is to manipulate the design and content to maximise the amount of time users spend on the app. How would you achieve this? With dopamine. Let's explore further.
Firstly, it's so accessible. Most people spend 2-4 hours per day typing and swiping on their phone. It's a (mostly) free and unlimited source of dopamine. A 24/7 dopamine button in your pocket. Instant relief from boredom, difficulty or anxiety. It's damn addictive.
Colours. Blue is very popular. It has been found to encourage communication and interaction. Different apps even use different shades of blue to produce a particular response. Notifications are often red, bold and/or flashing, because this encourages urgency and action - thus we must check each notification immediately.
Personalised content. If you've read this far, you must find this post interesting. Your brain is being filled with dopamine, so you're motivated to keep reading. The app has also noticed that you're spending a lot of time on this post, so it will show you similar posts in future.
Then there's variable reward. The algorithms learn to provide a balance between positive and negative outcomes to keep our brains engaged - just as a slot machine will balance wins, near-wins and losses to keep things exciting. Interestingly, the swipe down to refresh gesture at the top of your feed is designed to mimic a slot machine handle. We respond more to rewards delivered at random - therefore we check our devices habitually - and sometimes, if we're lucky, we see something that releases dopamine. An example of variable reward is Instagram notification algorithms, which will sometimes withhold your likes on your photos to later deliver them in a larger burst. Our dopamine system is driven by social validation, and by priming it with an initial, disappointing lack of likes, we release more when we have a sudden influx of likes.
Dopamine levels have a seesaw-like effect. What goes up, must come down. Constant stimulation of our reward centres are linked to increased rates of addiction, depression and anxiety.
The point of this post is not to discourage the use of smartphone apps, but rather to share an insight into how and why some of them can cause problems when they're overused.

Thanks for reading!

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