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Researchers: Digital media use could play a role in the rising rates of depression and anxiety

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Posted at 7:49 AM, Sep 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-10 10:49:35-04

How often do you catch yourself looking at your phone? Ten times a day? Twenty times a day?

Researchers say every time we interact with digital media such as television, video games, social media, or other interactions through our phones, we are giving our brains little rewards, which has possibly contributed to higher rates of depression and anxiety.

“I would live for that buzz [from social media] and I was just angry,” said Will Baird, a high school teacher who kicked the social media habit about eight years ago. “I felt like I was always on one and I hated that feeling.”

Baird recognized the subconscious anxiety that social media and other forms of digital media can produce, because it interacts with our brains similarly to how addictive drugs interact with our brains.

According to Anna Lembke, a professor of Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine at Stanford University, when we interact with digital media, we give our brains little hits of dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with mood, pleasure, reward, and decision-making. Every time one of those small surges occurs, our brains “downregulate,” or reduces the number of dopamine receptors that are stimulated to maintain balance.

Over time, enough of that downregulation can change our “set point” for feeling the rush dopamine provides, meaning we need more of it to feel the same, which is how addiction begins.

“Our brain essentially goes into a dopamine deficit state as a way to compensate for all those hits of dopamine,” said Lembke. “The process of getting addicted to any substance or behavior is an insidious process. It happens slowly and we’re often the last to be aware of it.”

in 2018, the World Happiness Report showed Americans reported being less happy in 2018 than they were in 2008. It is not a direct correlation to the use of phones and other screens, but Lembke believes it has played a prominent role. She also believes the rising use of digital media has correlated with the rise in depression and anxiety globally. The Global Burden of Disease study found the number of new cases of depression worldwide increased 50% between 1990 and 2017, with some of the highest increases coming in North America.

“I remember [when I stopped using social media] vividly,” said Baird. “My best friend in high school died from a car accident. Me and his brother are arguing about Obama and politics, and I said I don’t want to be a part of this anymore. I’m literally angrily texting back at this guy on Facebook Messenger for what? And I just stopped that day.”

Lembke says if your media use is affecting your work, productivity, or social interactions, maybe it is time to take a look at how often you use it.

She says setting boundaries, and even abstaining from digital media for one day, can be beneficial and a good place to start.