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Recovering from dopamine addiction

Around a month ago, I decided to do something terrifying: check the Screen Time app on my phone.

While I knew that I wouldn't be pleased with my discovery, I still wasn't prepared for the number reveal. I was averaging 6 hours of screen time a day, nearly 40% of my total waking hours. The remaining percentage of my conscious time was largely spent at work. I was living to work, sleep, and doom scroll. How could I have let this happen, and how could I fix it?

Almost all of my screen time was spent browsing the unholy duo of Instagram and Reddit, Instagram receiving the most of my attention. I had developed a near crippling addiction to Instagram Reels, an endless stream of short form video content that closely mirrors that of Tik Tok (In fact, many Reels are simply reposts of popular Tik Tok videos). I'd open up Instagram with the intention of browsing my curated personal feed of art, but had a difficult time resisting the "Explore" page button. With a single press, I was in the land of Reels - and my evening a thing of the past. At times, I would feel physically exhausted by my own addition. I wanted to stop scrolling, but breaking myself out of the stupor was challenging.

I decided to start exploring the causation for my social media addiction. While quitting cold turkey might help subdue my hunger for a time, I would likely relapse without an understanding of the root of my problem.

I've been battling major depressive disorder and OCD for the past decade, which together form a delightful little cocktail of madness. Over the years I've developed a tendency to distract myself from it. If I allow myself to exist in the present moment, I am often crushed by the weight of it all. To prevent this crushing, I must always be "doing" something. For a long while I threw myself into a vast expanse of ever changing hobbies. One week I'd be obsessively crocheting malformed teddy bears, the next I'd be 3D printing a row of rainbow colored frogs. This was a problem in itself, as I yearned for the ability to develop a mastery in a single hobby but never was able to cross the line from "amateur" to "pretty okay".

Somewhere along the way, I grew even less interested in my spice rack of hobbies and more interested in viewing the manifestation of other people's hobbies via social media. It started out as a means to seek inspiration, until eventually I became completely lost in a monstrous castle of "content".

The rise of the "For You" content algorithm on most popular social media platforms has segued us into an "attention economy" that can be difficult to eject from. Instagram is carefully engineered to keep you firmly planted on the couch, scrolling away with a reckless abandon. The more of it you consume, the more profit they reap. It's not only Instagram that flourishes, there's a piece of the pie for everyone! Feed the feeds, and you too can become a wealthy "influencer" who doesn't require a 9-5 to put food on the table.

Instagram Reels are designed to grab your attention, but only for a moment. They are a means of instant gratification. Wandering through a long, carefully plotted video of 12 minutes feels cumbersome when you can endlessly scroll through 6 second videos that stimulate your senses and trigger an instant dopamine hit. This infinite stimulant allowed me to distract myself from the discomforts of living in my own skin, with a required effort level of zero.

Over the years, I have felt my attention span shrinking. My willingness to toil over my own art has plummeted. At some point I stopped reading for pleasure, which was a sign that I'd truly lost the essence of myself. I would scroll through social media while eating breakfast, during my lunch break, during dull moments in remote meetings. Every night I'd lie awake in bed before finally exhausting myself to sleep, flicking my thumb across the small LCD screen that contained my entire world. If I could only regain the time I lost after putting my attention up for sale to the highest bidder.

I've come to the conclusion that I have an underlying dopamine addiction that's being fed most comfortably with predatory social media platforms. After mulling this conclusion over for a while, I decided to uninstall Instagram from my phone. My account still exists, but if I want to access it I must do so on my computer. Luckily, the Instagram web app is 24-karat garbage, and I have not been tempted to use it once. My screen time has been reduced drastically, although I still have some work to do when it comes to my morning routine of coffee and Reddit.

While I am beginning to feel myself return to the cusp of life, a problem still remains: my need for distraction. I've been attempting to fill the gaping hole that Instagram has left in its wake with other things. I've taken up crocheting again. I've crocheted a stuffed bumblebee that's quite embarrassingly crafted. Tomorrow I want to try an elephant. I'm nearly finished with "The Wise Man's Fear", a hefty fantasy tome that clocks in at 994 pages. I think these are good things. They require more brain power and deliberation. They force me to slow down, and not indulge my desire for an instant reward. But are they merely another means of diversion from my ever encroaching depressive tendencies?

I'll likely be nursing an "instant gratification" hangover for a long while. Every day I can feel the effects of its lingering poison - when I'm poised to drop crochet for embroidery, or in line to purchase another book that I don't actually need. What gives me hope is the fact that I've developed an awareness of my illness. Today I returned an arm full of assorted craft supplies to their respective locations in a Jo-Anne's. I didn't need them. I have enough yarn at home. Purchasing them would have given me the hit of pleasure I craved, but only for a moment. I would have regretted my purchase upon my arrival home.

So here's to me, and my long path to recovery from temporary satisfaction. May it be a worthwhile journey. 🥂