Do You Need a 'Dopamine Detox'?

  • Creators online say that taking a days or weeks-long “dopamine detox” from TV and social media can lessen social media dependency and improve wellbeing.
  • Researchers don’t yet know if a social media break can truly reset a person’s dopamine levels, but social media breaks in general can have a number of positive effects.
  • The goal is to find a healthy and sustainable relationship with social media, experts said, though that may look different for each person.

man sitting on couch reading a book

man sitting on couch reading a book

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In our increasingly tech-filled world, it’s not uncommon for people to spend large swaths of their free time staring at a screen, whether that be scrolling through Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter; watching videos on YouTube; or binging shows on Netflix. But this persistent exposure to media has some young people concerned for their wellbeing, and many are turning to “dopamine detoxes” as a possible solution.

The exact parameters seem to change from person-to-person, but usually these dopamine detoxes involve taking a break from watching TV or social media for at least a few consecutive days.

Dopamine—a chemical that motivates people to seek out certain pleasurable behaviors—may play a role in fueling an attachment or addiction to social media. Dopamine detoxers say that taking a break from the constant release of this chemical makes them feel less reliant on social media once they do pick it back up.

“It [kind of] regulates your dopamine response and makes you feel calmer, less anxious, clearer in the head, and more focused,” one TikToker shared in a video. “You start enjoying the smaller things and you notice more things. The beginning is tough but it’s so worth it.”

Throughout their week-long dopamine detox, the creator said they felt more imaginative, creative, and focused; and even rediscovered a love of reading.

Though there’s currently a lack of concrete research on this type of dopamine fast, experts agree that taking social media breaks or setting limits on consumption can certainly improve a person’s health.

“I think it’s a novel and actually a very good idea,” Kaz Nelson, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota Medical School, told Health. “In mindfully choosing to ‘detox’ or take a break from stimulating these systems, what you’re doing is you’re helping the systems to regulate and to break away from some of that tolerance behavior.”

Here’s what experts had to say about why taking breaks from media and TV can be beneficial, some possible limitations of the practice, and what to keep in mind before starting a dopamine detox.

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There are still many things that researchers don’t fully understand about how social media affects the brain, including if taking a break could really level out dopamine, explained Elias Aboujaoude, MD, clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and author of Virtually You: The Dangerous Powers of the e-Personality.

Though the actual connection to dopamine is tough to measure, experts agree that social media can be addictive, in that it can get people to alter their behavior.

Many of the television and social media platforms people use are designed specifically to get people to stay online for as long as possible, whether that be through frequent notifications or never-ending scrolling opportunities. Beyond these strategies though, social media at its core can be addictive to some people.

“Social relationships are one of the most ancient and long standing forms of reinforcement for the human species,” Dr. Nelson said. “Even though we’re in different circumstances, today, of course, our brains still have this wiring and sensitivity to social relationships.”

Social media “leverages, in an extremely powerful way,” humanity’s desire for connection and inclusion, Dr. Nelson said. Scrolling, because it may lead to a positive experience, triggers this reward system in our brain, she added.

Once these behaviors become habits, even things such as turning off notifications may not even decrease a person’s screen time—almost 90% of smartphone interactions are caused by the user, not prompted by a notification.

With dopamine in the brain telling people to seek out these pleasurable rewards from media, the time spent staring at a screen can feel all-encompassing. One report estimated that, globally, people spend about seven hours looking at screens each day. Kids ages 8 to 18 get 7.5 hours of screen time daily, on average.

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Benefits of Doing a Dopamine Detox

Because of this common compulsion to constantly check social media or watch TV, many people hope that abstaining from these platforms for a period of time will provide a kind of “reset” for their brains. When the detox is over, that dopamine-driven urge to check screens should be squashed, in theory.

But researchers don’t yet know how media affects dopamine levels in the brain, Dr. Aboujaoude said, so it’s hard to quantify if a detox would really have any biological effect.

“There’s just no direct evidence, no established evidence that, baseline, the dopamine is changing and readjusting [during a detox],” Dr. Aboujaoude told Health.

Dr. Nelson said that, since dopamine is tolerance-based, it’s very possible that doing a detox could lessen the dependency a person feels toward their phone. But it’s also possible, Dr. Aboujaoude added, that a person could simply take a week off of social media and then resume their old habits once they return.

Though the specifics are a bit unclear, there are a number of clear benefits from spending less time looking at screens just generally speaking, Drs. Nelson and Aboujaoude agreed.

Certain features of social media—likes, comments, follows—can promote negative mental health, so reducing time spent on the apps may make someone feel better. Also, people tend to watch TV and scroll on their phones before they go to bed, Dr. Aboujaoude said, so removing those habits may promote better sleep. A dopamine detox could also free up more time for other activities or work, making people feel more focused or productive, he added.

“It’s not uncommon that people will feel or will report—after going to that initial withdrawal period, so to speak—a better sense of wellbeing related to their brain and their executive functioning,” Dr. Nelson said. “Their body’s not consumed with craving, or the desire for the reinforcement mechanism.”

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Finding a Way to Make Media Work for You

Because dopamine detoxes aren’t a clinical recommendation, there’s no proper parameters for what it should look like.

For now, people have been experimenting with dopamine detoxes that last anywhere from a few days to weeks. Longer breaks could be beneficial if someone has had a particularly negative experience online, Dr. Nelson added, such as bullying or harassment. But media breaks don’t have to be a large commitment.

“Even taking a few days off might be a nice health break for your brain and these reinforcement systems,” she said.

But don’t expect it to be pleasant at first.

“Most people are going to find that this is pretty challenging, especially if they’re spending a lot of time in these spaces,” Dr. Nelson said. “Take care of yourself during that period of time when you’re stepping away from social media—you’re probably going to need to engage in a lot of self care.”

The detox should get easier over the course of a few days, but Drs. Nelson and Aboujaoude agreed it’s smart to plan ahead and find other ways to pass the time without media. That can be hanging out with friends, or engaging in non-screen-related hobbies, such as reading or exercising. It’s even an opportunity to spend more time outside—the joke that people online should go “touch grass” has a ring of truth to it, Dr. Nelson said.

Besides abstaining from media altogether, tapering use is another possible way to cut down on dependence, experts agreed.

“I would start by getting a sense, quantifying how much time is being spent on what, and trying to establish some kind of hierarchy in terms of what the most problematic activities are,” Dr. Aboujaoude said.

But slowly diminishing social media use can be really challenging when people feel such a strong pull to check these apps, Dr. Nelson said. For many, they may have more success if they just wipe everything from their phone. It all depends on the individual, she added.

The most important thing is that people get to a place where they have a sustainable and healthy relationship with social media. If that’s accomplished through a few days of detoxing or tapering off use, that’s great. But if not, it’s worth brainstorming other solutions.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to have a plan for how to reintroduce media once the break is over, Dr. Aboujaoude said. That is more likely to lead to long term success. And if someone is still struggling, people can seek out a therapist to help them get over any internet or social media addiction, he added.

“The goal, again, is not so much to turn the clock back and pretend that these technologies don’t exist,” Dr. Aboujaoude said, “but rather to learn how to consume them responsibly and in measured doses.”

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