The Dope on Dopamine Fasting: Expert Answers to Your Digital Detox Questions
Dopamine fasting is trending, but can a digital detox really help ADHD brains better manage addictive behaviors like unhealthy video gaming and social media use?
What Is Dopamine Fasting?
“Dopamine fasting” is a buzzy term for the practice of temporarily abstaining from stimulation — via smartphones, social media, video games, and other platforms that deliver reliable dopamine hits — to feel more pleasure later. Here, psychologist Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., weighs in on the Silicon Valley and TikTok trend that is gaining momentum, particularly among people in their 20s who have ADHD.
Q: People say they go on a dopamine fast or digital detox to “reset their dopamine levels” so that they will feel heightened pleasure when they return to their screens and other forms of stimulation. Does this work?
Our minds are so habituated to a heightened level of engagement from near-constant phone or computer interaction that taking a pause seems wise. But when it comes to video games, TikTok, and other high-dopamine-hit engagements, doing a “fast” isn’t the way to go because you’re not really changing anything about your brain. It’s better to moderate your device usage to have an effect that’s less negative than stopping cold.
[Read: “My Phone Was My Drug”]
Q: Can a digital detox help your brain overcome addictions to compulsive behaviors like checking social media and high levels of stimulus delivered via texts and alerts?
The idea of using abstinence to address addiction is not supported by research. And it’s not a practical solution for behaviors integral to functioning in the modern world, such as using social media and texting. These tools, when used in moderation, are a regular part of modern life. But when these devices draw you away from more necessary activities, or impair your ability to do daily tasks, they become destructive.
I have college-age clients who put their phones in timed lock boxes for, say, three hours during their study time. Once the box is locked, there’s no opening it without a sledgehammer. This technique is referred to as “precommitment,” and in my experience, it is much more effective than other phone apps.
Q: Can individuals exert control over their dopamine levels or is sensitivity to stimulation just baked into your DNA?
[Read: “I Need a Digital Detox. How Do I Break a Social-Media Habit?”]
The timed lock box is a good example of exerting control, except you’re not really controlling your dopamine; you’re moderating your behavior. That’s about the best anyone can do. Another kind of moderation is setting an alarm to signal when it’s time to exit a game or social media, or shutting down the Internet at 10pm to avoid interrupting sleep with multiple dopamine hits.
Q: Are there risks associated with dopamine fasting? Should people be trying it?
I think the risk is that you constantly feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately, feeling uncomfortable is exactly what a lot of people are trying to escape with so-called addictions. They want things that are easy, fun, and stimulating to their brains instead of the tedium of getting business done.
Dopamine Fasting and ADHD: Next Steps
- Read: Wasting Time on Social Media? 6 Ways to Stop ADHD Brains from Doom Scrolling
- Read: Hooked on Social Media? How to Break the Habit
- Read: My ADD Sabotages My Social Skills Online
Carole Fleck is Editor-in-Chief of ADDitude.
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