The Dopamine Connection – Facts vs Fear
We do believe that online problematic behaviour is emotionally, psychologically, physically, and socially multifactorial in its cause and effects. However, we do take issue with the narrative that some promote about the “addicitve” effects of dopamine when it comes to online gaming and social media, which is just not supported in current evidence-based peer-reviewed research. As Dr Vijay Namboodiri, professor of neurology at the University of California San Francisco, stated in this 2023 interview that such narratives “… are not necessarily based on actual science of what we know about dopamine” bit.ly/3JQrHbd
As researcher Catherine Knibbs stated in her book “Children, Technology and Healthy Development”:
“We humans are more complicated than these dopamine hits, reward and motivation circuits, and behaviours that may seem to be based in the addiction narrative”
For years now, we have been hearing and reading about how gaming, smartphones, or social media “addiction” is the result of the “dopamine loop” which is similar, some say identical, to the dopamine loop in substance addiction. Just recently we watched the Netflix show, “The Social Dilemma”, which some call a polemic rather than a documentary, where the association of substance addiction, dopamine, online gaming, and cellphones was a common narrative. https://bit.ly/353TyzV Our questions – Are these comments, opinions, and 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?
We are not scientists, brain doctors, cognitive or developmental psychologists, or neuro-chemists but as a retired police officer of 30 years, Darren is a trained investigator. When he was looking to obtain a conviction in court, he 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.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the brain and body. It belongs to the group of chemicals called catecholamines and phenethylamines. It is involved in memory, reward pathways, and motor coordination, particularly in relation to Parkinson’s disease. Dopamine is released by neurons and sends signals to other nerve cells in the central nervous system.
Presently, research has found that the human brain comprises four primary dopamine pathways, which are connections linking different regions of the brain and serving as channels for neurotransmitters, chemical messengers. Each pathway is associated with distinct cognitive and motor functions – the mesocortical, mesolimbic, and nigrostriatal pathways. The fourth pathway, the tuberoinfundibular pathway, regulates the secretion of prolactin, a hormone necessary for milk production.
When it comes to how dopamine affects 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” https://bit.ly/2Tcx11e. Yes, fast 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 https://bit.ly/3pGv8pU. It shouldn’t surprise us that dopamine is released when we engage in online gaming or social media on our devices. We 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 https://bit.ly/3wdapfy. 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 an important neurotransmitter for learning and movement control, but 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 come from opioids in the brain, neurochemicals that increase pleasure and deaden the 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.”
As author Mark Humphries stated in his 2017 article “The Crimes Against Dopamine” stated:
“It is not reward. Dopamine neurons do not fire when you get something good. They fire when you get something unexpected. And they sulk when you don’t get something you expected. Rewards make you happy. Dopamine does not”
Based upon the research surrounding dopamine that we were able to locate, or that was sent to us, 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.
We 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 behavioural addiction to be recognized by the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnosis and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5) is gambling disorder https://bit.ly/3gm4dLD . There is still a significant amount of debate on whether other less recognized forms of impulsive behaviours, 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) https://bit.ly/3zeWwPU. So, for those who continue to promote the word addiction to describe problematic online behaviour, they do so in error (sometimes purposely in our 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.
In 30 years of policing, Darren witnessed first-hand what true substance addiction looked like; we can assure you that it is nowhere near the same as those contraindications observed in online problematic behaviour. However, we 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 released is important to understand. Specific to online gaming (behaviour based), we could only find one peer-reviewed research study specific to video games https://go.nature.com/2SmmhgI. 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 https://bit.ly/3cuzFWZ https://to.pbs.org/3pKaLYL
Credit: Chart: The Conversation, CC-BY-ND Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse
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%. Once again, the intensity differences between problematic gaming behaviour and substance addiction, based on the research, are 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? https://bit.ly/3v8Yhv1
As Dr. Daniel Kardefelt-Winther stated in a 2021 article “Do internet addiction and gaming disorders exist?” https://bit.ly/3c1bvmo
“In a very simplified version, some people say when you use digital technology, dopamine is released in the brain because of particular features of that technology. And that provides us with a nice feeling, and people argue that we become dependent on that dopamine release and the nice feeling it provides us, which then causes addictive behaviour because we want more of it. This perspective misses the fact that dopamine is released when we do a lot of things. For example, it’s involved in learning processes. You get dopamine released from many things that are interesting and rewarding. So why do we think this is a big deal when it comes to technology? We don’t talk about people being addicted to learning, even though dopamine is released here as well. The argument about dopamine being a causal driver for substance addiction has also been questioned by many researchers who have found that substance intake that is not associated with significant amounts of dopamine release can also be addictive. My point is not to say that dopamine doesn’t matter in these processes, but that the proposed causal impact of it continues to be exaggerated.”
Although activities like gambling, watching pornography, internet use, and playing video games don’t stimulate as much dopamine release as drugs do, they can lead to patterns of behavior similar to those seen in substance use disorder — namely, continuing the activity despite severe negative consequences.
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 https://bit.ly/3w8gIRC. 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 in 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.
- The effects identified in this study are extremely small.
- The group they identified as addicted had levels only 58% higher than the control. Remember the study mentioned earlier that found a 65% increase in dopamine when engaging in meditation.
- 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 dopamine. As Matthew Johnson (MediaSmarts) shared with me, “this challenges the idea of using addiction as a frame to analyze the behaviour.” Good point!
Another important and easily understood perspective that Mathew Johnson shared with us, 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.”
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” 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 cause the same intensity of dopamine as does drugs or alcohol (substance) addiction. In fact, there is some good research that shows that the dopamine effect from computer use is totally different than that experienced in substance abuse https://bit.ly/3wAZA80
- A person or organization that uses the dopamine loop as their reason why online gaming, smartphones, or the use of social media can be as addictive as substances (drugs, alcohol) is doing so as a red herring and is promoting a juvenoic narrative that is 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.
- Brain research is also showing us that when it comes to problematic gaming, regions in the brain that involve attachment-seeking behaviour, which also involves reward and motivational circuits, do overlap the dopamine paths. So which is it – addiction because of dopamine, motivation, or reward?
- 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 https://bit.ly/3cxPoVk . 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
As Dr. Christopher Ferguson (PhD) 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” https://bit.ly/3zhpe2Q.
So why is it that some in the digital literacy and internet safety sphere like to blame what they call “internet addiction” on dopamine? As writer Mark Humphries stated:
” What is the root of these crimes against dopamine? A prime suspect is that, in trying to explain what it does, writers have chosen to leave out the wrong words. The main research papers on dopamine call its fast, large spike (and its fast, sulking pause) the “reward prediction error system”. A bit of a mouthful; and hard to remember. So textbooks and popular science articles shorten this to the easier “reward system”. Even the esteemed journal Nature, when reporting on the Brain Prize, called dopamine the “reward system”. But it is not. “Reward” is precisely the word they should have left out. We can replace the word “reward” with the word “outcome”, and it makes not one jot of difference to the theory. Yet by calling it the “reward system”, the mental leaps to happiness, pleasure, emotion and all the other crimes are easy ones to make. No, it is the other words – “prediction” and “error” – that are the key. Dopamine is a prediction error system.”
Where will future research take us, we don’t know, but we look forward to more evidence-based research when it comes to the onlife world. If we 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”
Here’s a great video from our Friend Dr Rachel Kowert