Social media has been kind to Marlee Grace, an artist, dancer, author, and e-zine maker. It has given her a livelihood, connected her to new friends and collaborators, and even led her to true love. But for this free-spirited millennial, the digital world is both a blessing and a curse. When you share your work and life with 77.3K followers on Instagram, it's hard to know where your work ends and your life begins—or where your smartphone ends and your body begins. The process of documenting, posting, scrolling, and clicking can become an endless loop—a sinkhole that feels more real than virtual. "Technology gave me my whole career," she says. "But it's also made me want to die. It's very addictive."
Grace is familiar with the signs of compulsion; she got sober from alcohol and drug addiction in 2011. Though it seems to pale in comparison with substance abuse, phone addiction can be serious, too. "Both kinds of addiction are really physical," she says. "When I'm on an Instagram binge, it's hitting the dopamine in my brain. Not only are these shiny phones addictive—and so is the internet, because it's endless—but the apps [for platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Tinder] are designed to be like slot machines. They're designed for us to never put them down."
Grace notices that during a particularly bad spell with digital overload, her relationships suffer, and eating well and exercising go out the window. To counter that downward spiral she's had to make changes, taking steps to clarify the distinctions between work and life, virtual and real, phone and body. These are 21st-century problems, so to help others she's put it all into a book: How to Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care (HarperCollins, 2018). Conceived to be "part workbook, part advice manual, part love letter," it's about feeling whole again and not so disconnected. Included in that aim is a healthier relationship with what is perhaps your most intimate companion. Your ever-present appendage. Your phone.
Bottomless Scrolls and Dopamine LoopsDigital addiction doesn't just affect Instagram pros. Regular folks get addicted, too. The average person scrolls through 300 feet of digital content per day, according to Andrew Keller, global creative director of Facebook. That's about the equivalent of a football field's length, or the height of the Statue of Liberty. A big chunk of that is social media: People spend an average of 1 hour and 16 minutes on social platforms daily. Technology brings a wealth of advantages from flexible work to global connectivity, but it has a dark side. Screen addiction is ubiquitous—the unspoken epidemic of our time.
The same physiological mechanisms come into play with any form of addiction—so just like with substance abuse, screen time can lead to an increase in dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. "Dopamine is the want," explains Tricia Kostin, clinical director at Summit Behavioral Health Florham Park, an outpatient facility in New Jersey with services to treat substance abuse and addiction. "You want people to like your post. You want to see what's trending and what people are talking about on social media. People can get into a dopamine loop, going from want to pleasure and reward in an endless cycle."
This effect is anything but random: Whether your dopamine loop comes from Facebook or Fortnite, the programmers planned it this way. "People get so addicted to social media because it's on a variable reward schedule," explains Kostin. "Programmers use algorithms to let you get to the next level of a video game, or they'll give you a certain amount of likes in an hour. You might get likes on social media, but they won't let you see them all at once. So you get depressed, thinking, 'No one is liking my post!' Then all of a sudden, you get a whole bunch of likes because social media waited—and then flooded you with them." Surfing the web creates a similar cycle, as we hop from one flashy website to the next. "Our brains are triggered by colors; they want to see something pretty again. The colors, lights, and graphics keep a dopamine loop going."
So many of us rely on our screens for everything—our work lives, bookkeeping, activity planning, even dating. How, then, do we know if we are addicted or just normal? "I once heard someone say in an AA meeting, 'If you think you have a problem with alcohol, then you probably do,'" says Grace. "It's the same with screens. There are also physical cues; my spine will send me messages when I'm using my phone too much. It's addiction when it affects your quality of life."