Screen Time, Dopamine, and Depression
We live . . . as having nothing, yet possessing everything. 2 Corinthians 6:9-10
It’s my nature to live for my own joy. It’s also my nature to try and find that joy in immediate gratification. With immediate gratification however, there is usually a short-term benefit with some price to pay later. With any unhealthy pleasurable activity – eating junk food, viewing pornography, doing drugs – I stimulate dopamine’s activity in my brain, triggering a reward response, which encourages me to engage in that behavior repeatedly. Soon, an addiction is born. In seeking my own joy, I settle for a short-lived pleasure that fades and soon must be repeated. When I can’t have it, I feel empty, and I obsess about returning to the behavior. The rest of the world grows somewhat less interesting as I seek and find my meaning in whatever that thing is.
I see this with my screen time. My smart phone isn’t inherently evil. There are a lot of good things I can do with it, and it has made life easier. I’m not sure though, that it’s made my life better. I can remember a time when I checked my blogs stats thirty times a day, finding immediate gratification in Facebook likes. I was literally writing a blog on addiction when I discovered that I was addicted to the affirmation of social media. Like any addiction, I was happy when I could have it and sad when I couldn’t. The rest of the world grew boring as I lived for that small burst of pleasure.
I doubt that I’m alone here. As technology strives to make our lives better, it may rather just make us more addicted to our smartphones. As we find stimulation, pleasure, and entertainment in that little screen, we remodel our brains to find happiness there. Then, when we must put it down, the stimulation and pleasure abruptly stop. The real world can’t compete and seems boring compared to the non-stop stimulation of the screen. Soon, we’re experiencing symptoms of depression when we cannot spend our entire day being entertained.
In today’s passage, Paul spoke of the freedom in possessing nothing. The more stuff we own, the more our stuff owns us. The more we find our purpose and meaning in Earthly pleasures, the more lost we become. It’s only in seeking our meaning in our relationship with the father, that we find authentic, lasting joy. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we must throw our phones out the window. It may mean though that we should audit our time, asking how much of it we give to social media versus how much we spend reading our Bible and praying. It may mean that we must choose to put the phone down, finding our purpose in something real and lasting.