Why do we find everything from social media apps to games to good old email so captivating and compelling and how can psychological theory help to explain the attraction? The simple answer is that it is designed to be. Modern tech companies have deliberately and systematically eradicated any natural ability to engage in stopping rules when using their apps. They have designed their platforms to keep our engagement with the content endless and constant. Writing in the 1930s, Freud saw drug use as the “drowner of care” and perhaps the modern distraction is repeated obsession with checking, clicking, swiping and applying social media updates.
Stopping rules took place when the television schedule once finished at a certain time. Even with the internet, there was a form of stopping when the computer was located in one room and physically attached to a connecting point. We were less likely to stay connected to the devices in different rooms and less likely to bring them to bed. The increased connectivity brought about by fast mobile telephony has displaced a lot of these stopping rules. Now, if you start watching a box set on a download or streaming service, you can opt to have one instalment just roll into the next and the content can now be consumed in bed, on the train or even whilst out walking. This kind of auto-binge option can prevent you from having to make the decision to watch another. It is easier to just engage in the orgy of indulgence - akin to eating the whole box of chocolates. We can do this because we get flooded by dopamine when we indulge in this way.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centres, amongst other things. Dopamine neurons are activated when we consume something which we perceive to be good and pleasurable. We differ as individuals in our need for pleasures and rewards to get enough dopamine neuron. It can come from behaviours (or processes) in the form of sex, gambling or internet addiction, for example, as well as from chemical dependence with alcohol, food and drugs. This form of self-medication can seek to quieten an underlying anxiety condition and can be when addiction takes hold.
All of us respond in some way to the influence of dopamine. The real danger to emotional stability is when we overindulge specifically in response to low mood or to stress (what is termed “affect dysregulation”). When you get bored, it is easy to turn to the device for a range of entertainment options. The slippery slope to addiction could mean turning to the device when you have a half hour to kill and when with any natural down time there is an automatic switch to the device for emotional comfort.
Games and apps on social media networks that involve the acts of swiping, zapping and puzzling stimulate a higher degree and intensity of engagement. This can become like a mobile dopamine pump. The biggest issue with interaction is that you receive feedback and feedback can often be the engine of addiction. Greater danger to your emotional stability comes when the device is used for gambling, porn or constant playing of games to alleviate the effects of fear and stress.
Counselling and psychotherapy can offer a way of exploring what is behind your need for connection. It can be an opportunity to assess your ability to deal with stress and anxiety. It can also allow you to explore other ways of feeling more whole and serene without the digital stimulation. Behavioural addiction can often be masking underlying issues that heighten anxiety and these can be addressed within a private and confidential setting. Exploring “here and now” feelings can be a useful way of working through behavioural addictions.
Noel Bell is a UKCP accredited clinical psychotherapist in London who has spent over 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel is an integrative therapist and draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, CBT, humanist, existential and transpersonal schools