Why is doing a digital detox so HARD?

28 Jan Why is doing a digital detox so HARD?

There are many benefits to doing a digital detox, even for a relatively short period of time. However, there’s no doubt that most people find it incredibly difficult to put down their smartphone or step away from their computer screen. What is it about the digital world which makes logging off from it so hard?

Most of the ‘addictive’ nature of digital, and specifically it seems social media, has to do with our basic physiological processes and the chemical reward system in our brains. Two very particular brain chemicals that are involved in the internet addiction process are oxytocin and dopamine.

Oxytocin and digital detox

Oxytocin is known as the ‘love hormone’. When we kiss or hug a loved one, oxytocin levels race up. Oxytocin also acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. In fact, the hormone plays a huge role in mother and child bonding and also in pair bonding. The hormone is also stimulated during sex, birth and breast feeding.

And it seems, the love hormone also rises during…tweeting! In one experiment, after just ten minutes of being on Twitter, oxytocin levels rose as much as 13%—a hormonal spike equivalent to one groom who was monitored on his wedding day. With a reward system stimulated that much no wonder even a partial digital detox is so hard.

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Dopamine and digital detox

Dopamine is another important chemical in the puzzle of why a complete digital detox can seem impossible. Dopamine causes us to seek, desire and search. It is stimulated specifically by unpredictability, by small bits of information, and by reward cues. These are almost the exact conditions that being on your smartphone and using social media creates. If you don’t know when someone might email you or message you (unpredictability) and you are scrolling through tweets and posts (small bits of information) while your own posts are being liked or positively commented on (reward cues) then your dopamine levels are likely to soar.

In fact the pull of this ‘want chemical’ dopamine, is so strong that studies have shown tweeting or checking emails is actually harder for people to resist than cigarettes and alcohol. Researchers theorised that it was precisely the ‘high availability’ of digital, as well as the rewards associated with it, that may be a significant reason why it was so difficult to resist.

Internet addiction?

Both dopamine and oxytocin are powerful brain chemicals involved in the addiction to substances such as alcohol and drugs and processes such as gambling. They are also, it seems, powerfully stimulated by the digital world. A digital detox is hard precisely because it involves depriving the brain of the spike in these rewarding chemicals that the digital world creates. Relying on willpower alone to disconnect from digital is likely to be unsuccessful. An organised digital detox retreat with group support is the best approach to help you learn how to switch off.

3 Comments
  • Miriam Byrne
    Posted at 14:30h, 02 February

    This is a very interesting examination of the biochemical factors underpinning the modern phenomenon of digital addiction. I don’t drink alcohol or smoke but now I understand I get my ‘chemical highs’ from being connected to social media….and the parallel with gambling makes sense as the gambler faces unpredictability – will his bet pay off? – and then the surge of excitement on a win, not too different than posting on FB or Twitter and then waiting in anticipation of a ‘win’ in the form of multiple engagements and the temporary high that elicits. Thanks for sharing this useful information which also helps improve understanding of why children can be so plugged into the digital world and feel negative emotions when they have to log out.

    • Editor
      Posted at 19:30h, 02 February

      Thanks for your comments Miriam! We agree that it helps understand why children have such problems setting boundaries around logging-off. Their brains are less developed and they’re battling surges in these reward chemicals that are even harder for them to resist than for adults.

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