Thrive in our connected world

Dopamine! 8 Video Shorts on App Addiction

Can’t stop checking, swiping, updating, liking or just lurking online? There’s a reason for this: All of your favourite apps were built to be addictive by activating dopamine in your brain.

That’s the pitch of a new collection of eight 7-minute video shorts you can see below in this post. Collectively called “Dopamine!” and created by French director Léo Favier, the shorts have been co-funded by the European Union and are available on ARTE the European Culture TV channel.

The Dopamine! videos are fun, clear and engaging – and illustrate how eight popular apps – Tinder, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, YouTube, Uber and Candy Crush – are all accused of using dopamine-inducing persuasive technology to undermine our wellbeing and turn us into app addicts.

Available in six languages, the video shorts put Big Tech firmly in the dock, and portray users as victims in a concerted effort to manipulate, modify and monetise our attention.

And you’re wondering how you ended up in this state. Don’t worry, it’s to be expected. You’re totally hooked because these apps have been conceived to secrete into your brain the molecule responsible for pleasure, motivation and addiction. Dopamine!

Dopamine! Video Shorts, 2019

Take a quick look at one or two of the videos below, and you’ll get the flavour. The key question, of course, is whether Big Tech is really guilty as charged (see below the video for some concerns about jumping hastily to a guilty verdict).

Lets Talk About….The Dangers of Social Media

If you’re interested in joining the discussion and happen to be in London, do come along to a public discussion tomorrow “Lets Talk About….The Dangers of Social Media” at the hclub in Covent Garden (Tuesday 12 November 2019, 7pm – free entry). Organised by Liz Smith, who is producing a new film Swipe Left For Addiction, I’ll be participating in the round table interview.

Dopamine! Tinder

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Dopamine! Facebook

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Dopamine! Candy Crush

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Dopamine! Instagram

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Dopamine! YouTube

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Dopamine! Snapchat

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Dopamine! Uber

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Dopamine! Twitter

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Guilty as Charged?

So are these apps really “addictive”?

Are we the victims of Big Tech using dopamine-response to manipulate, monetise and modify our attention and behaviour?

Or do you just like using these apps?

Some will view the Dopamine! video shorts as an important exposé on self-evident harms of “app addiction”. Others will see baseless pseudo-scientific clickbait reminiscent of anti-vaxxer campaigns.

What’s clear is that it is certainly a gross over-simplification (verging on techno-panic fake news) and over-reach to claim that dopamine effects are the cause of app addiction.

This is for two reasons. Firstly, the relationship between dopamine and addiction (and behaviour in general) is complex, and secondly, it is not clear that apps are actually addictive.

Dopamine as Folk Devil

The idea that dopamine is the cause of various addictions can add a scientific (or some might say pseudo-scientific) flavour to media claims.

But the functions and effects of the dopamine in the brain are varied and not fully understood. The truth is that dopamine – a hormone and neuromediator – is associated with multiple psychological (and physical) functions and effects, including mood, learning, motivation, anticipation, curiosity and anticipation.

In fact, increased dopamine can be beneficial, and boosting dopamine is used to treat a range of conditions from obesity, binge-eating, ADHD, Parkinson’s Disease to depression. From this perspective, it makes as much sense to say that these apps are addictive because they stimulate dopamine as it is to say that these apps can help treat obesity, binge-eating, ADHD, Parkinson’s Disease and depression.

As a neuromediator, dopamine is a “language” that neurons use to communicate with each other. And whilst there are dopamine pathways in the brain (areas where neurons communicate with each other using extracellular dopamine) that may be associated with addiction, it makes no more sense to blame the language of dopamine for addiction as it does to blame the French language for war, peace or love.

So whilst it may be convenient and click-friendly to portray dopamine as the “folk devil” of addiction, as we become enslaved by Big Tech in a Stanley Cohen-style moral panic, the truth is certainly more complicated.

App Addiction. Really?

Similarly, the idea that these apps are genuinely “addictive” is another misleading over-simplification. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by addictive. Addiction is associated with craving, psychological dependence, withdrawal symptoms, reduced impulse-control, and compulsive use despite negative consequences. Is that really what happens when we use Instagram or YouTube?

Of course, we can like using apps and tech without being addicted, just as we can like eating, drinking, socialising, playing, learning, and discovering, without being addicted to these things. What distinguishes addictive behaviour from non-addictive behaviour is that addictive behaviour leads to significant harm or distress

Behavioural addiction: A repeated behavior leading to significant harm or distress. The behavior is not reduced by the person and persists over a significant period of time. The harm or distress is of a functionally impairing nature.

Daniel Kardefelt-Winther (et al 2015)

From this perspective, apps are “addictive” only to the degree they significantly impair our ability to function. And the evidence for this is tentative and unclear. As a new diagnosis, there is currently only one medically-recognised addictive disorder and that is “gambling disorder“. This condition appears in the subsection of “Non-substance-related disorders” in the category of “Substance-related and Addictive Disorders” in the manual of mental disorders DSM-V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).

However, the appendix to DSM-V does include a further potential candidate for inclusion as an addictive disorder (subject to further research) and that is “Internet Gaming Disorder“. Using the proposed defining symptoms for this condition (five or more symptoms need to be present), it may make sense to talk of app addiction – if five or more of the following symptoms are present.

  1. Preoccupation – being all-absorbed and spending substantial amounts of time thinking or fantasizing about app-use during times of non-app use
  2. Tolerance – characterised by an increasing amount of time spent on using apps to feel their desired effects (e.g., excitement, satisfaction)
  3. Withdrawal – refers to symptoms that emerge when unable to use or to cut down or stop using. Symptoms typically involve feeling restless, irritated, angry, frustrated, anxious, or sad.
  4. Persistence – entails an enduring desire to use or unsuccessful attempts to stop, control, or reduce.
  5. Escape relates to engaging in a behaviour to escape from or relieve negative mood states, such as helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or depression
  6. Problem – refers to continued app use despite being aware of the negative consequences of this behaviour for central areas of life.
  7. Deception – refers to individuals lying to others about, or covering up the extent of, their app use.
  8. Displacement – app-use behaviour dominates, with a resulting diminishment of other social and recreational activities.
  9. Conflict – reflects more substantial issues as a result of gaming, referring to losing, or nearly losing, an important relationship or opportunity related to schooling or employment.

Today, there is just not enough evidence to claim that apps are addictive. We like using them, sure. Some of us use apps a lot. But are we addicted? Only if they impair our ability to function. The dopamine = addiction trope may be appealing, but it is not science.

But what the Dopamine! video shorts may lack in terms of insight and evidence, they make up for in a compelling articulation of popular fears and concerns over the role of technology in our lives. Just don’t get “addicted” to the claims.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.