Is it Really the Boogie Man When It Comes to Problematic Online Behaviour?
This article is specific to dopamine, addiction, and online problematic behaviour. I do believe that problematic online behaviour, not addiction, can be a reality in today’s onlife world. I also believe that online problematic behaviour is emotionally, psychologically, physically and socially multifactorial in its cause and effects. I also identify one documentary in this article that does speak to important issues such as the “attention economy”, “privacy”, and “mental wellness challenges” specific to social media, online gaming, and hypersexualization; some of which I subscribe to. However, I do take issue with the effects of dopamine as presented when it comes to online gaming, and social media, based upon the current evidence-based peer-reviewed research. I must also emphasize that good research specific to problematic online behavior is in its infancy. My findings in this article could change if and when new evidence-based research is published – Darren
For years now, I have been hearing and reading about how gaming, smartphones, or social media “addiction” is the fault of the “dopamine loop” which is similar, some say identical, to the dopamine loop in substance addiction. Just recently I watched the Netflix show, The Social Dilemma that Anne Collier calls a polemic rather than a documentary, where the association of substance addiction, dopamine, online gaming, and cellphones was a common narrative (1). My questions are: do these comments, opinions or suppositions based upon good research, or are they just being used as a scare tactic given its comparison and association with substance abuse? Additionally, is the issue surrounding problematic internet usage more nuanced than just the dopamine loop?
I’m not a scientist, brain doctor, cognitive or developmental psychologist, or neuro-chemist but as a retired police officer of 30 years, I was a trained investigator. When I was looking to obtain a conviction in court, I needed to provide evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the person charged was guilty of that crime. This took evidence. Sometimes to solve a crime, especially a historical crime, investigators start with a hypothesis that seems plausible, but as the investigator follows the evidence, it’s not uncommon that the initial hypothesis becomes implausible. Investigators are always careful not to allow just enough evidence to make a hypothesis plausible, thus why, much like in academia, an independent third-party review takes place so that the evidence collected has not been overinterpreted or ignored. This is especially true when it comes to forensic evidence. For this article, I’m going to look at the topic of dopamine as an investigator who is putting a file together to prove a case before a court, using the evidence-based research that is available as my foundation, to support my investigation and findings.
When it comes to how dopamine effects humans, “…it has become traditional to label dopamine neurons as ‘reward’ neurons, this is an overgeneralization, and it is important to distinguish between aspects of motivation that are differentially affected by dopaminergic manipulations” (2). Yes, spikes in dopamine can be triggered anytime we encounter something we like or find pleasurable; eating a chocolate bar, working out, kissing your partner, and yes playing a video game or engaging in social interaction via social media (3). It shouldn’t surprise us that dopamine is released when we engage in online gaming or social media on our devices. I think it is also important to know that dopamine is not an on/off process and is steadily released in smaller levels throughout the day. In fact, low levels of dopamine are one of the contributing factors of Parkinson’s disease (4). So, dopamine can be released quickly when we encounter something we like, especially when unexpected, or slowly throughout the day for brain and body health. Not only is dopamine important neurotransmitter for learning and movement control, it also plays a role in memory, attention, mood, cognition and even sleep. It is also important to understand that dopamine is not what makes you feel good. As Clinical Psychologist Dr. David Ley stated,
“When a person is about to experience pleasure, dopamine is released in the brain, and in the parts of the brain that experience and process pleasure. Dopamine’s role here is NOT that it makes you feel good. It doesn’t—the pleasure and hedonic or euphoria feeling comes from opioids in the brain, neurochemicals which increase pleasure and deaden pain. Dopamine’s role in pleasure and reward is that it helps your brain to recognize “incentive salience.” This means that it’s like a little red flag to your brain, saying “hey, pay attention, this is about to feel good, and you want to remember this, so you can do it again.” A critical issue here is that a lack of dopamine doesn’t actually make the experience feel less good. In studies with rats, where dopamine was suppressed, rats showed “normal hedonic reaction patterns,” and still showed normal pleasure responses even though dopamine was suppressed.”(5)
Based upon the research surrounding dopamine that I was able to locate, or that was sent to me, it’s not that dopamine is the problem, it’s the amount released and its frequency that can be the problem. This is what those who promote the dopamine loop as their lynchpin argument to draw a comparison to substance addiction (drugs and alcohol) fail to understand or even report.
I do think it’s important to understand that there are two types of recognized addictions:
- Substance addictions, such as drugs and alcohol, and
- Behaviour addictions, such as gambling
It should be noted that the only behavioral addiction to be recognized by the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) is gambling disorder (6). There is still lots of debate on whether other less recognized forms of impulsive behaviors, such as compulsive buying, compulsive sex, or problematic online gaming can be conceptualized as addictions in the DSM5. Having said this, in 2019 the World Health Organization recognized gaming disorder in the new edition of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) (7). So, for those who continue to promote the word addiction to describe problematic online behaviour, they do so in error (sometimes purposely in my opinion) not based upon the current evidence-based research, the DSM5, or even the ICD-11 that uses the word “disorder” purposely. Distinguishing between problematic online behaviour and the word addiction is important (8).
In my 30 years of policing, I witnessed first-hand what true substance addiction looked like; I can assure you that it is nowhere near the same as those contraindications observed in online problematic behaviour. However, I want to emphasize that both are concerning for sure. Those who continue to push the narrative of online gaming addiction, social media addiction, or phone addiction, based upon opinion or by skewing the good evidence-based research to meet their narrative, are downplaying the emotional, psychological, physical and social sufferings of those with true substance addiction.
Now let’s get back to dopamine! The research clearly shows that no matter what the substance addiction or problematic behaviour, dopamine will be released, but the amount of dopamine release is important to understand. Specific to online gaming (behaviour based), I could only find one peer-reviewed research study specific to video games (9). In this study, the researchers found that the levels of dopamine released in the brain raised by 100%. Although this number appears to be concerning, activities such as meditation increase dopamine by 65% the same can be said about having sex and other pleasurable activities (10,11).
Now here’s what’s interesting – meditation, sex, gambling or even online gaming are behaviours, when you look at substance addiction such as alcohol, cocaine and methamphetamine, there is a clear pathology that can trigger dopamine level spikes by over 1000% (12). Once again, the intensity differences between problematic gaming behaviour and substance addiction, based upon the research, is clear when it comes to the levels of dopamine released. Those who intimate or even say that online problematic behaviour is the same as substance addiction because of the dopamine loop are just being disingenuous. What would be fair to say, research is showing us that although substance addiction and problematic online behaviour may use the same dopamine pathway, they are not similar in intensity, cause and effect. As Dr. Markey and Dr. Ferguson stated in their book Moral Combat, there are billions of people young and old playing video games around the world, if online gaming was as addictive as drugs, then why don’t we have a massive world epidemic specific to this issue? (13).
Some who promote the dopamine loop addiction narrative will point to a 2015 study titled Relationship Between Peripheral Blood Dopamine Level and Internet Addiction Disorder in Adolescents: A Pilot Study to support their position (14). The conclusion of this study is:
“In conclusion, these results of the present study provided evidence in favour of the hypothesis that dopamine played an important role in the development and maintenance of Internet addiction. This study preliminary affirmed the effect of dopamine in IAD, though the details about dopamine’s action are still unclear. Moreover, the present study prompted that dopamine in peripheral blood plasma might be an easily accessible candidate as biological markers for future research into the mechanisms of Internet addiction.”
A couple of points that these same groups fail to identify about this study:
- This study attempted to measure Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) to do this they used something called the Internet Addiction Test (IAT).
- The means and process used to measure Internet Addiction Disorder has come under academic scrutiny (15).
- The effects identified in this study are extremely small.
- The group they identified as addicted had levels only 58% higher that the control. Remember the study mentioned earlier that found a 65% increase in dopamine when engaging in meditation (8).
- The authors actually state, “…our results in this study is opposite of the conclusion” In other words the study found that the test group did not appear to have developed any level of tolerance to the dopamine. As Matthew Johnson (MediaSmarts) shared with me, “this challenges the idea of using addiction as a frame to analyze the behaviour.” (16) Good point!
Another important and easily understood perspective that Mathew Johnson shared with me, about this specific study,
“It’s not surprising that there would be a correlation between dopamine levels and a high score on the IAT because what the IAT questions measures is using the internet for pleasure or avoiding displeasure. For example, question 2 is ‘Do you feel the need to use the internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction’ (though note the lack of tolerance identified in the study), ‘do you feel restless, moody, (etc.) when attempting to cut down or stop internet use’) and ‘Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood.’ In other words, people who use the internet to make themselves happier produce more dopamine when they use the internet and are likely to want to keep using the internet to avoid a dopamine crash – exactly as one would expect with any pleasurable activity that becomes a habit. Again, though, the dopamine is really the effect and not the cause” (17).
A developing area of research that is now starting to take place that parents should be aware of, the issues surrounding the use of loot boxes in gaming, and how they may fall under the category of gambling (18). Unlike a casino, gaming platforms cannot control who (like youth) will access these loot boxes. Why is this important, because loot boxes appear to utilize the same monetized variable reward systems that are used in gambling. Remember, gambling, specific to behaviour addiction, is recognized in the DSM5 as a concern.
So, what does all this mean to us parents?
- Yes, both behaviour (meditation, working out, or playing a video game) and substances (drugs and alcohol) appear to follow the same brain pathways when it comes to the release of dopamine. As a social media researcher and colleague of ours stated, “Social media isn’t problematic because it produces dopamine any more than Doritos are bad because they produce dopamine – Doritos are bad because they are full of fat and very little else and are carefully engineered to get you to buy more Doritos” (19) Research to date shows that online gaming and cellphones are not inherently addictive, what the research is showing is that the hyper-social environments they provide can lead to problematic behaviour if it’s not mediated, especially at younger ages.
- There is very little peer-reviewed research that provides evidence that online gaming or the use of social media (behaviour) via cellphone or computer will causes the same intensity of dopamine as does drugs or alcohol (substance) addiction.
- The use of “loot boxes” in some online games, based upon the most recent academic peer-reviewed research, should be something that parents should be concerned about and monitored.
- A person or organization that uses the dopamine loop as their reason why online gaming, smartphones, or the use of social media can be just as addictive as substances (drugs, alcohol) are doing so as a red herring, and are promoting a juvenoic narrative not based upon any good academic or current peer-reviewed research.
- Rather than using the term addiction, which is not supported in the academic literature, parents should use the term problematic behaviour which is recognized by academic researchers. Semantics are important! We need to start talking about the person and work towards understanding the behavioural and motivational factors surrounding problematic behaviour. Let’s stop externalizing problematic behaviour by focusing on dopamine addiction as the cause.
- Research has shown that the average person who is not an academic, scientist or medical doctor can be convinced that something is medically true via explanations that contain logically irrelevant reductive scientific information (20). Just because something is repeated many times doesn’t necessarily make it true, especially by those lay-people with no medical or scientific background who misrepresent the research to support their narrative.
- Anything taken in excess can become problematic. Ice cream is delicious and makes people feel good, but too much can also make you sick. The same can be said about online gaming and social media. It’s all about balance or what Jocelyn Brewer calls a “blended” onlife approach to everything in our lives (21).
As Dr. Christopher Ferguson (Ph.D.) stated in a recent article he published in Psychology Today,
“Moral panics over media have existed since the time of the ancient Athenians (it was Greek plays back then). For some reason, some natural human biases make it difficult for us to learn from the history of past moral panics (such as comic books in the 1950s, or Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s) and present a balanced and nuanced view of current data. Instead, more often, parents have to sift through scaremongering claims that misrepresent the science” (22).
Where will future research take us, I don’t know, but I look forward to more evidence-based research when it comes to the onlife world. If I had one wish, it would be that the academic and scientific community make their research more understandable to those of us who look to them for guidance. Not to do so, as Dr. Ferguson stated, only causes parents to, “sift through scaremongering claims that misrepresent the science”
I conclude my investigation on the dopamine loop, specific to behavioural addiction, based upon the current evidence-based research that is referenced and cited in this article! I rest my case your honor.
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