Our bodies and brains are wired to release a “feel good chemical” called dopamine when we eat, have sex, or exercise. We also get a dopamine release from creating something, accomplishing something or being in the flow state of learning.
Our culture has introduced many more dopamine producing activities to younger and younger children: Sugar, caffeine, TV, movies, porn, youtube, video games, social media, are all designed to flood massive amounts of dopamine into our systems. Our current culture seems to promote fun, excitement, productivity and keeping busy.
The problem is that our brains and bodies aren’t designed for this much dopamine. Some experts theorize this is one of the reasons we are seeing such a huge increase in ADHD, depression, anxiety, addictions and other brain centered differences.
Not everybody reacts the same way. I can’t get out of shopping malls and casinos fast enough but I have family members who come to life and love the dopamine release of shopping and gambling. When my kids were little, my daughter could be in a room with the TV on and barely notice, but the TV had a hypnotizing effect on my son that turned him into a zombie. We tend to gravitate towards things that give us these delicious hits of dopamine. When we get rewarded with dopamine, it motivates us to come back for more….and more….and more.
Can your kid sit in a room with her favorite sugary treat and not be tempted? If you take away the cookie or the ipad, does your son hyperfocus on the object until he gets his dopamine hit? Can your teenager sit with her phone nearby and not be tempted to check it? Every text alert or social media “like” is designed to release dopamine and create addiction.
When we don’t reward our brains with dopamine (by checking our phone or eating sugar, etc.) we can create anxiety and insomnia. But overtime, the flooding of dopamine in our systems creates addiction and increased feelings of depression.
So basically, the world our kids are growing up is a challenge to their mental health.
What can we do?
- We need to become really deliberate about where we get our dopamine and not just follow a “If it feels good, do it” mantra.
- Observe ourselves and our children closely to see where we might be flooding our systems with too much dopamine.
- Re-wire the brain BEFORE we become addicted and show signs of depression and anxiety.
I have a lot to say on this topic and invite you to join me for a FREE Webinar called,
“How Much is Too Much?” Screen time, Dopamine and Mental Well Being.
In the meantime, here are a few life hacks below to help you and your kids conquer this challenging culture.
- Establish a Streak – Middle School kids have discovered a dopamine hit from “maintaining streaks”, or seeing how many days in a row they can text friends about silly things. Instead, establish a streak of how many days in a row you made your bed, walked your dog, ate a vegetable. Mark it off on a calendar and celebrate your victory. Check out the app Calm and start a meditation streak.
- Create Something – When we can get immersed in a project, creative or not, it can give us a healthy dose of dopamine. Many of us think of art or music but for me, creating webinars, class content and writing blogs count. Encourage your kids to create a Rube Goldberg, a fort, or cooking project.
- Seek balance. Don’t let your kid play a video game WHILE also watching TV (choose one!). Turn off ALL alerts on their phones so they don’t hear “So & so posted a new video!” No cell phones while studying, or in the bedroom while sleeping. Buy an old fashioned alarm clock. Try allowing movies and video games only if interspersed with exercise. Save sugar for special occasions.
- Music! Turn music OFF on video games but turn it ON while your child is doing an activity you’d like to reward. Playing music shoot hoops outside or while they set or clear the table, might help them linger and want to do it more often.