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Phone overuse affects student dopamine levels


Junior Partha Krishna glances around the room that he and some friends booked in the library. As the conversation dies down, everyone reaches into their pockets and starts tapping away on their phones. The room grows quiet, and the contagious air of smiling and laughter has dissipated. The lure of the screen has sucked the life out of the room, and the only thing he has left to do is pull his phone out as well. 

Addiction can haunt families and affect the life of people of every age and from every walk of life. And at its core is the chemical dopamine, a simple neurotransmitter our body releases to make us feel happiness or joy. 

Dopamine produces the rush of happiness when someone swishes a three-pointer or gains another five followers on Instagram. But when the body releases too much dopamine, that can ultimately lead to addiction, according to Dr. Anna Lembke, the Chief of Addiction Medicine at Stanford. 

“I got into addiction medicine because I knew a lot of people struggling with all kinds of addiction; substance, gambling and many other types of addictions,” Lembke said. 

Lembke said everyone produces dopamine passively and people’s bodies release more or less of it depending on what they are doing. These baseline values are part of homeostasis — a person’s average levels for body functions. When homeostasis is disrupted, a person’s body tries to bring the levels of dopamine back to normal, so when the initial dopamine dose wears off, people are left with less baseline dopamine, often making them feel depressed.

“It’s all the good and none of the hard work, and then inevitably as soon as you emerge from that world, your dopamine levels are going to plummet below baseline,” Lembke said. “You are going to have a come-down, like a hangover.” Lembke said. 

She said this come-down then leads to people seeking even more high-dopamine events, causing their base levels of dopamine to drop even more. Lembke said seeking that rush of dopamine to feel happy actually causes the feeling of sadness after the initial buzz wears off. 

“The behavior of bombarding our reward pathways with all these pleasurable things, that’s causing depression, anxiety and other mental health problems,” Lembke said. 

Krishna said he’s figured out how to tell if his friends are addicted to social media, because he notices the come down after they get off their phones. 

“Whenever I was with them, they couldn’t really be in the moment, always checking their phones,” Krishna said. “They always look happy when they’re on their phones, and then afterwards they seem more distant and down, and I know that’s because the buzz from social media died down.” 

Junior Hailey Oshita said she has gone so far as to Google how to control her screen time after realizing she was spending too much time online. After some research and testing, she said having an accountability partner really helps her limit her time on her phone.

“I think having someone to keep you accountable helps a lot because it’s easy to forget or ignore your own thoughts, but when someone else tells you, it feels more impactful,” Oshita said.“Sometimes, it’s hard to set boundaries for yourself, but in the end too much of anything is bad for you so you just do what you need to do to keep yourself in check.”

“We set time limits, practice digital etiquette, and control what spaces we use our electronics in,” Lembke said. “And by doing these things, we can find a balance and realize life is a lot better when we aren’t addicted.”

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