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Why your internet addiction is simply biological

Written by Simply Zesty on

MRI of the brain

If you've ever felt the insatiable urge to check that new e-mail, Twitter reply or SMS, it's because of the dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a chemical produced in various parts of your brain and controls moods, your motivation and sense of reward.

You might have heard that dopamine causes us to seek out pleasure. More correctly, it's what makes us seek out that pleasure.

To give a real-world example: when your phone receives a text, it beeps loudly, and we suddenly feel the urge to check the message. Dopamine (which is especially wired to cues like message alerts) is the cause of that urge.

An Endless Loop

And so we enter the 'dopamine cycle.' Want to know what the capital of Chile is? It's just a Google search away. Want to know if your friend has sent you that funny e-mail he told you about? Refresh your inbox. Want to see what your friends are saying about the new Harry Potter movie? Just hop onto Facebook, Google +, Twitter, Rotten Tomatoes, blogs or Bebo. When it comes to social networking, our dopamine receptors are spoiled for choice, much like a kid in a candy store.

Dopamine means that the anticipation is greater than the reward: the urge to check that SMS is greater than the satisfaction we feel once we've read it and we can sometimes experience a little low when the SMS wasn't what we expected.

Stimulated by the Unknown

Part of what makes the internet and its messages so attractive to your dopamine systems is that it's unpredictable. Dopamine is stimulated by uncertainty; not knowing everything. So, when we get an alert on our phone, we're unsure. It could be anything, a text, e-mail, a reply on Twitter or a Facebook message, we don't know until we check it out nor do we know who's it from or what it's about. Dopamine loves that.

So, What's The Danger?

When people say 'gambling addiction', they really mean 'dopamine addiction' because it's dopamine that give people the urge to continue gambling. In fact, a technology addiction is remarkably similar to a gambling addiction as you have an ever-changing scenario of possibilities and opportunities for reward. Granted, you can't lose big money from compulsively checking Facebook, but there are other pitfalls.


Technology addictions can lead to increased stress-levels, shorter attention spans (especially in kids), irregular sleep-patterns and poor sleep, to name but a few.

Most worryingly, nobody has done research into the long-term effects of dopamine on the human brain in the age of Twitter, Facebook and e-mail. Rats were investigated in the 60s and again in the 90s, but not so much humans. Simply put, there very well might be long-term side-effects to dopamine 'addiction' that we simply don't know about yet.

Technology is a great tool, but is it worth our well-being?

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