Here’s a situation most of us can relate to: We find ourselves facing a dull moment—maybe standing in a checkout line, sitting in a waiting room, or even stuck at a red light—and our hands suddenly feel empty. Like they have a mind of their own, they reach for our pockets, and place a screen in front of our faces. Never mind the eyestrain, the neck pain, or the voice in our heads yelling at us to do something, anything, else. Before we know it, we’re tapping, swiping, and scrolling our attention away.
Addictive cravings have become an everyday part of our relationship with technology. At the same time, comparing these urges to drug addictions can seem like hyperbole. Addictive drugs, after all, are chemical substances that need to physically enter your body to get you hooked—but you can’t exactly inject an iPhone. So how similar could they be?
More than you might think. From a neuroscientific perspective, it’s not unreasonable to draw parallels between addictive tech and cocaine. That’s not to say that compulsively checking your phone is as harmful as a substance use disorder, but the underlying neural circuitry is essentially the same, and in both situations, the catalyst is—you guessed it—dopamine.
So, how exactly does cocaine leverage dopamine to hook you, and what does addictive tech do to mimic that habit-forming potential? Let’s take a look between your ears.
The human brain is divided into a number of different regions. You can think of these like departments in a company; they each take on particular sets of tasks and even have interdepartmental mail in the form of specialized chemicals called neurotransmitters. Dopamine, famous and largely misunderstood, is one such chemical. It’s used to transmit a variety of different signals in the brain (most neurotransmitters do) but what it’s best known for is the role it plays in reward processing.
When we experience something our bodies deem beneficial, like tasty food, sex, exercise, or successful social interactions, neurons deep in our midbrain release dopamine and send it to a central pair of nut-sized brain regions called the basal ganglia. When it gets there, it first stimulates a reward system that gives us the pleasant, satisfied feeling dopamine is known for. But it also sets off a habit-formation system. Essentially, it triggers us to subconsciously take note of whatever events, people, or objects appeared in the lead-up to that positive experience.
Thanks to those notes, if we encounter a particular reward more than once, dopamine-releasing neurons can learn to anticipate it and begin to fire when we see environmental cues rather than the rewards themselves. They also become more sensitive to those cues over time—that is, they become more apt to fire at increasingly small hints that there might be a reward in our future. If the rewarding experience is, say, having a fun conversation with a friend, our dopamine neurons might eventually learn to fire from just seeing that friend’s face in a crowd from across the street. That cued firing serves as a trigger that motivates us to seek the reward out. In short, it creates a craving.
This system also has a method for improving its own predictions. When we become accustomed to a reward, we’ll get not one but two influxes of dopamine when we encounter it. The first influx anticipates the reward, signaling how good we think it’s going to be (and motivating us to get it); then, when we receive the reward itself, the second influx is stronger or weaker depending on how the reward compares to our expectations. Getting a decent sandwich for lunch when you were expecting high-school cafeteria mystery meat will produce a solid follow-up dopamine rush, whereas that very same sandwich might even inhibit dopamine release if you expect Michelin-star haute cuisine.
The beauty of this combination of reward prediction and directed motivation is that it naturally draws us toward the good things in life. At least, when it’s working as intended. But the same system also draws us to not-so-beneficial things like cocaine. Why?
When cocaine gets into your system, it artificially jacks up dopamine levels, lighting up the basal ganglia while bypassing the need for natural rewards. It’s not unlike hotwiring a car, artificially sending a current to the ignition and skipping the key.
This artificial increase in dopamine levels triggers the same processes that a natural dopamine hit would—but more intensely. It has the reward system saying, “this feels really fantastic, and I want more,” while the habit system takes note of everything in the environment (including sights, sounds, smells, people, and objects like drug paraphernalia). This means that if any of those pop up in the future, they’ll trigger a little motivational dopamine spike in anticipation, and because the drug strongly increases dopamine, there will always be a subsequent reward signal that—as far as the basal ganglia are concerned—is better than expected. It’s not hard to see how usage becomes powerfully reinforced in short order.
To make matters worse, the brain compensates for the huge amount of dopamine by producing less of it naturally and becoming less sensitive to it. The modest influxes from natural rewards shrink and no longer produce the same effect they used to—and the system gradually becomes dependent on cocaine to engage at all.
So, how do digital addictions compare?
We’ve established that the cycle of cocaine addiction is kicked off by chemically hotwiring our reward system. But your phone and computer (hopefully) aren’t putting any substances into your body. They can’t chemically hotwire anything.
Instead, they hook us by targeting our natural triggers for dopamine release. In contrast to hotwiring a car, this is like setting up misleading road signs, tricking a driver into unwittingly turning in the direction you indicate. Research into how this works on a biological level is still in its infancy, but there are a number of mechanisms that seem plausible.
Let’s start with craving triggers. Our app interactions often begin the same way: a notification dings or buzzes in our pocket, then we pull the phone out and turn on the screen. Phone notifications make perfect cues for the reward system to latch onto, so we become primed to get a dopamine influx when we sense them. We become sensitized to our notifications, too, since they often lead to a reward. If you’ve ever mistakenly felt your phone vibrating in your pocket or thought you heard your ringtone amid background noise, you’ve experienced the effects of this yourself. Beyond that, we often use technology to find relief from boredom, so dull moments themselves can act as a cue.
Of course, there needs to be something our basal ganglia can latch onto as a reward for craving cues to really take hold. Addictive tech has no shortage of those.
For one thing, positive social interactions can trigger a dopamine response, and social media can provide an endless supply of them—likes, comments, retweets, and upvotes all fit the bill, as well as private messages, tagged photos, game invitations, and more. Each one of these little social goodies, as far as your brain is concerned, deserves a corresponding influx of dopamine to be sent to the basal ganglia. This rush sets off the same rewarding feeling, stimulus association, and habit formation as a delicious sandwich or a hit of cocaine. It’s the same dopamine, after all. In contrast to true natural rewards (and cocaine, for that matter), these are in endless supply and basically effortless to access, so reinforcement can happen fast.
While social media is undoubtedly at point in this regard, it’s not alone. A number of the addictive features of social networks have been integrated into other media. News websites like this one have comment sections at the end of articles, for example, complete with the ability to like or upvote other people’s posts. Those do, of course, also serve a legitimate purpose, but even apps that gain zero functionality from such features—Venmo and its social feed comes to mind—incorporate them to trigger cravings in their users.
Video and livestream sites like YouTube and Twitch can provide the feeling of a positive social interaction, even if there’s no real interaction at all. Take the immensely popular “let’s play” video genre, in which video creators provide live commentary while playing a video game, or any number of other videos of people simply hanging out, having fun, and chatting familiarly. These trick the viewer’s neural circuitry into reacting like they’re actually engaging in these social interactions. It doesn’t matter that on a conscious level the viewer understands they don’t really know the people on screen. Seeing them laugh and listening to their lively banter produces an influx of dopamine regardless.
App designers can feed into the effect of expectations on dopamine responses, too. Instagram, for instance, sometimes delays notifying users of likes until they’ve collected for a while. This primes expectations to be low—since no likes are coming in at first—and then makes a typical like-count appear unexpectedly large when it does arrive, producing a much bigger dopamine rush than it arguably should.
These examples only scratch the surface. Look around and you’ll find countless others. Yet, this isn’t the whole story—there’s more to addiction than cravings. Connected to the basal ganglia are the prefrontal cortex and extended amygdala, both of which get heavily involved when withdrawal kicks in.
Back to cocaine. When the dopamine high associated with intoxication subsides and is replaced with an inevitable dopamine low, the body enters withdrawal. Low levels of dopamine alone cause a decrease in motivation and satisfaction, but piling on is the accompanying activation of the extended amygdala. Among other things, this region contains the brain’s stress systems, responsible for our so-called “fight or flight” response. The neurotransmitters involved in that response play a role in withdrawal as well. Taken together with decreased activation of the feel-good part of the reward system, this produces an intensely negative emotional and physical state. Ingesting cocaine again (of course!) alleviates this, which makes it very easy to consider further use the only way out.
At this point, the prefrontal cortex gets affected. Sitting right behind your eyes, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function—various subregions enable prioritization, rational decision-making, time management, and, most importantly for us, impulse control. If you think of a craving produced by the basal ganglia as a green light telling us to act, the inhibitory powers of the prefrontal cortex provide a corresponding red light and give us time to think more rationally.
Normally, when the basal ganglia give us an impulse to do something reckless or inappropriate, that red light will turn on and inhibit us from acting on it. Say you’re driving home from the grocery store, and some delicious-smelling rotisserie chicken wafts up from the back seat. The savory aroma is a reward cue, and your basal ganglia says “dig in,” but since acting on that desire could be disastrous on the road, your prefrontal cortex inhibits the action and keeps your hands on the wheel.
During withdrawal, though, much of that impulse control goes out the window. Stress can hurt your ability to self-control, and that’s caused by neurotransmitters associated with amygdala activation (particularly norepinephrine and cortisol) essentially dimming the red light. If there’s a lion staring you down and licking its lips, blocking that signal could save your life— you don’t exactly have time to deliberate. When the stress is caused by withdrawal, though, it’s not so beneficial. Cues associated with the relief of intoxication crossed with muted inhibitions become a recipe for cravings to take over. This makes it incredibly difficult for someone in withdrawal to resist urges to relapse, even when it’s situationally inappropriate, dangerous, or irrational. And if they do give in, they’re only reinforcing the behavior, increasing the intensity of withdrawal in the future, and further silencing their inhibitions.
This is why addictions are called vicious cycles. The artificial dopamine spikes kick off a chain reaction. Each of these three brain regions feeds into the others to create a perfect storm—strong cravings, withdrawal anxiety, and crippled impulse control—that’s hard to escape.
But withdrawal doesn’t just happen with addictive drugs.
There’s also a dopamine low following the rush of using addictive tech, and there’s evidence to suggest a corresponding activation of stress signals from the extended amygdala. Because interacting with addictive technology also decreases overall dopamine sensitivity, natural rewards may not be enough to bring levels back up.
It’s no wonder dull moments and notification pings can feel like irresistible invitations to indulge. We’re primed to be uninhibited, and our digital lifestyles make sure there is a quick fix only a few taps away, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But there’s more to addictive tech than tricks to get you to start using. Once we get going, we end up binge-watching, doomscrolling, and falling down rabbit holes for hours and hours. After our dopamine is back up, why doesn’t the prefrontal cortex intervene and say, “hey, let’s spend our time and energy on something else?”
The secret lies in interactive tricks that hinder the red light system even when we’re not in withdrawal.
Take, for example, autoplay, that countdown on sites like Hulu, Netflix, and YouTube that carries you away from one piece of media to the next if you don’t click the cancel button in time. Then there’s infinite scroll—essentially the same concept, just applied to articles and social media feeds. Instead of reaching the bottom of a page and needing to click or tap a button to advance to the next, websites and apps that use an infinite scrolling feature seamlessly tie subsequent pages together, so that the rehearsed, almost automatic act of scrolling doesn’t get interrupted by any deliberate choice to continue. Other services, like TikTok and the Reels feature on Instagram, as well as embedded videos on news sites, might play the media on a loop or throw out the timer and advance immediately, taking you on an endless trip from one piece of content to another.
Both autoplay and infinite scroll are often accompanied by a system that algorithmically populates the page with content once you’ve exhausted what you went there to consume. For instance, on Instagram, after all your friends’ recent posts have been displayed, the feed doesn’t end. Instead, community posts based on your predicted interests enable scrolling to continue endlessly.
What makes these design elements so effective is that they flip the roles of the basal ganglia and the prefrontal cortex in regulating what we’re doing. The red light system is there to inhibit us from acting on our impulses—but to stop the flow of digital dopamine, we actually need an impulse. We need to take action to disengage. Meanwhile, the green light system is telling us to carry on with what we’re already doing—so it’s hard not to get trapped.
And so, just like cocaine, many of the devices and apps we interact with set us up to fall into an addictive feedback loop. They target our reward systems and sidestep our executive functioning—and we should be paying more attention to that. Sure, digital addictions aren’t as bad for you as a cocaine addiction, but they’re a lot more common. Addictive tech is almost always at arm’s reach for practically everyone, children included. It’s socially acceptable to use virtually anywhere and is hardly ever thought of as truly harmful or dangerous. To complicate things, there’s no denying that the platforms, services, and devices that are getting us hooked are also genuinely useful, even indispensable, in our lives, so ditching them completely isn’t realistic.
Regulations haven’t yet caught up to addictive tech, so for now, it’s up to users to protect themselves. So, next time you find yourself absent-mindedly scrolling or get sucked into watching videos for way longer than you meant to, don’t just chalk it up as wasted time. Think about your brain. The good news is that there are ways to tip the scales. Setting your phone to black-and-white, using do not disturb more judiciously, and really considering whether you need every app you have are just a few. It takes a bit of discipline, but getting your brain back is worth it.
Peter Sauter is a freelance science writer based in Boston, Massachusetts. He holds a degree in philosophy from Boston University, where he also studied neuroscience.