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Digital Dopamine: When 'Delightful' Becomes a Drug

10/30/2017 10:45 EDT | Updated 10/30/2017 17:41 EDT

In the world of software, buzzwords come and go -- but if you watch their trajectory, you can see where things are going. It used to be you wanted your content to go "viral" and you wanted your apps to be "sticky."

But now, for investors and startups looking to get a foot in the door, subtlety has been replaced by a clear urgency.

Developers want their software to be addictive, a habit that users can’t break, that connects at a level that transcends thought. And investors are all in. They want the next Candy Crush or Pokemon Go, using a mix of feedback tricks and ever-increasing burst of digital feedback that tickle our brain's most addictive substance: dopamine.

Photo: Pixabay

Smoking a cigarette triggers a small dopamine release, and a user quickly becomes addicted. Cocaine and heroin prove larger jolts of dopamine, and are even more powerfully addictive.

Researchers found social media activated the amygdala, the area in the brain that controls emotions, and the striatum, which anticipates and processes rewards. But let’s just call it what it is: it’s digital dopamine.

Researchers from California State University-Fullerton found that social media obsession could lead to what we classically think of as addiction.

The findings, published in the journal "Psychological Reports: Disability and Trauma," found that the peer approval of having people "like" your photos releases dopamine.

Yup. You’re getting your customers "high on your digital supply.

Michelle Newton, a consumer futurist, explained to the Huffington Post “It’s a drug that feeds the ego of the self, the ego of me.”

So, the idea that a sophisticated mix of software and hardware can be addictive is now very much on the minds of digital leaders. At two industry conference I attended in the past month, conversation about internet addiction was buzzing in the halls.

It’s now understood that getting users engaged enough that they come back again and again is both the holly grail of startups looking to grow user engagement, with potential for a level of unhealthy use.

Tristan Harris was a Googler before he became the co-founder of Time Well Spent, an advocacy group working to persuade the tech world to help users to put down their phones. How’s that going? Not so well.

Harris told The Atlantic that it’s a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.”

He added, "You could say that it’s my responsibility” to exert self-control, “but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.”

Edwin Salsitz, M.D., an addiction medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City, shared this checklist of behaviors with USA Today. Here are five questions to ask yourself if you think you might be addicted to your phone:

  1. Am I glued to my phone?
  2. Can I put my phone down -- even for a bit?
  3. Do I feel like I get withdrawal symptoms if I’m not using it?
  4. Am I sneaking use of my phone?
  5. Do I use my phone when bored or depressed?

“The brain likes a pretty steady, smooth level of dopamine,” said Salsitz. “So a lot of screen activity time, I think, is a hectic way to live, to constantly be checking and thinking about it.”

Chances are that you’re addicted, too. Chances are, the current models of internet behavior are optimized to keep you checking your phone.

The question for the industry -- like the food industry before it, and the tobacco industry before that -- is, how will you will balance the power of digital dopamine with the social responsibility to make the world a better place?