top of page

Dopamine Without the Cocaine

A quick overview of dopamine without the cocaine - and what it means for developing habits for families.

Read this closely: “I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. He was responding to a question about his involvement in exploiting consumer behavior. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,” he explained.

What that means: Platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Tic-Toc are replicating what cocaine does to addicts so that we’ll keep using their products. Really.

What is Dopamine: It’s a chemical naturally produced by our brain when we do something we enjoy in order to get us to do it again. It exists from millions of years ago when reward and reinforcement helped us learn where to find important things such as food or water, so that we would go back for more. Now, since pure survival is no longer necessary, dopamine shows up when we eat yummy food, have sex, exercise, take meth or cocaine (don’t know from experience) and when we have successful social interactions. Of course, the dopamine hit is not the same from a social interaction as from cocaine -- but both have enough to make them addictive.

Smartphones aren’t addictive: No, but the texting and apps with their hyper-social environment are. According to one study, 73% of people experienced a mild state of panic when their phone was misplaced - c’mon, you’re the same! And, as a result, as you already know, studies are beginning to show links between smartphone usage and increased levels of anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, and increased risk of car injury or death.

I am not going to offer a solution to get everyone off their phones. Instead, let’s focus on what we can do to decrease the chances of anxiety and depression. Two of my favorites are setting limits and listening. Just pick one and practice it once today.

Option 1

Listening: True attunement is not simply undivided attention; it is being open and aware to what is happening with your child and responding to those needs which ultimately helps the child regulate his/her emotions. But listening, really listening without distraction, is a good start. Today, I just want you to practice listening:

If your child is already talking and you’re ready to start. Perfect. If not, ask a simple age-appropriate open-ended question, e.g. Can you give me an example of how on-line learning feels different? Next, simply nod your head and if the conversation stops, simply repeat what the child said. For example,

Child: “The teacher isn’t very good at talking and showing us the paper we are supposed to look at".

You: Oh, so the teacher isn’t very good at it....

Child: No, and it’s so dumb because we could just do this on our own without the teacher..

You: So you think that it would be easier just to have a list of what to do?

Child: Yes, and then we wouldn’t have to waste our time.

You: What would your list look like?

Get it?

Extra credit: And as you’re listening since you don’t have to come up with anything to say, really try to understand your child’s point of view.


Setting Limits: Or what I like to call Just Say No. Not always. But it is important that we understand that we can trust our instincts and set limits even if our kids don’t like it at first. “When child has the experience of structure and they get freedom from structure [because they know what is allowed]”[1] So pick something about the phone that you would like to see changed: maybe your daughter brings it to the dinner table or maybe your son keeps it on while doing homework, or maybe people sleep with it in their rooms and you don’t think that’s smart. Pick just one thing that you’d like to change and let’s change it. For me, it was always so hard to set a limit and stick to a limit because I’d been so inconsistent for so long, that they knew I’d crack if they manipulated me with enough guilt tactics. This is how one of my kids explained to her friend how to convince the friend’s mom of a sleepover (overheard by my husband in the car): ‘you just keep asking and asking and saying it’s really important until she says yes”.

  1. In a calm, planned moment, bring the idea up with your children and get their input. We’d like to establish a new rule around having phones at the dinner table because it’s important to me that we focus on one another instead of on our phones.

  2. Listen to their ideas, complaints, manipulations etc. Grab onto one and incorporate it: ‘You’re right, it does seem like a long time. How about if we agree that right after dinner, you can go have a look at the phones and I won’t say a thing”

  3. Stay calm.

  4. Do it. Tonight. And then stick to it, without yelling - just reminding and then biting your tongue - 5 nights in a row. And then congratulate yourself!

[1] (Dan Siegel, interview 2018 What Saying Yes Does to you Brain).


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page