The Lie About Social Media That Fooled 82 Million People

Is this 'mind-altering' neurotransmitter making you crave social media daily?

Last updated on Jan 06, 2024

crowd of people on phones Getty

According to the "anxiety industry" — what I like to call modern media — dopamine, a neurotransmitter in human brains, is at the root of many social problems.

In fact, it's becoming increasingly popular right now to blame repetitive behaviors problems of any kind on dopamine.

For instance:

  • A viral video by Inside Quest interviews author and marketing consultant Simon Sinek, who blames dopamine for creating an addiction to technology like smartphones or social media.
  • A group called The Dopamine Project promotes “better living through dopamine awareness” and asserts that “expectations of scoring dopamine squirts in their brains keep addicts lying, cheating, stealing and craving the next fix.”
  • An article in Forbes argues that dopamine was the ultimate cause of America’s “addiction” to guns.
  • Anti-porn activists claim that dopamine acts as an "erotoxin" — an erotic toxin — that is released when people watch pornography and results in neurological damage to those who watch.
  • Pornography is called “Playboy on (Dopamine Draining) Steroids” where dopamine is squirted into the brain with each click to the online world of “dopamine-releasing naked females.”
  • This delightful article calls dopamine the “celebrity” neurotransmitter, referring to it as the Kim Kardashian of neurochemicals.

People who treat the unrecognized and unsupported concept of behavioral/process addictions commonly claim that dopamine is at the root of many of the world's problems, stating that people develop a drug-like tolerance to dopamine, wherein they continuously crave more and more.


RELATED: 4 Positive 'Addictions' That Make Life More Meaningful

Ahh, if only we didn’t have to deal with the curse of dopamine, what a glorious and problem-free society we would have.

Or would we?

Remember that movie Awakenings with Robert DeNiro where the patients are in long-term catatonic states? The doctor, based on real-life neurologist Oliver Sacks, administers the drug L-Dopa, bringing these folks temporarily back to life and consciousness.

L-Dopa is a chemical that becomes dopamine in the body. Without dopamine, our bodies and brains simply wouldn’t work. We’d all be catatonic.


Dopamine is not a “reward” chemical. That’s not actually the way our body uses it.

First, like all things in our body, dopamine serves many purposes.

  • It serves as a vasodilator, expanding blood vessels in our body.
  • Loss of dopamine results in Parkinsonian conditions, a degenerative neuromuscular disorder.
  • Most antipsychotic drugs work by inhibiting the function of dopamine, not because its “reward” makes people hallucinate, but because the brains of people with schizophrenia may be overly sensitive to the effects of dopamine.
  • Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) may involve, in part, decreased dopamine activity, where parts of the brain aren’t working well enough to constrain attention and resist impulses.

Dopamine serves many complex functions in the brain, and only kindergarten-level brain science would describe it as an addictive drug.

Dopamine is connected to rewarding experiences, but not because it makes you feel good.

On Twitter recently, a man challenged me by saying that pornography “gives [him] a palpable dopamine rush" after he abstains for a few days. I replied that this was fascinating — and he must be a thoroughly unique and superhuman person to be able to detect and discriminate the experience of the different neurochemicals within his own brain.


Pleasurable experiences — whether sex or sports — involve many different neurochemicals and hormones released in our body, all of which have complex and interactive effects.

When a person is about to experience pleasure, dopamine is released in the parts of the brain that experience and process pleasure.

Dopamine’s role here is not that it makes you feel good. It doesn’t. The pleasure and hedonic or euphoric feelings come from opioids in the brain — those neurochemicals which increase pleasure and deaden pain.

Dopamine’s role in pleasure and reward is that it helps your brain to recognize “incentive salience.”

This means dopamine acts like a little red flag to your brain, saying “Hey! Pay attention! This is about to feel good and you want to remember this so you can do it again!”


A critical issue to note here is that a lack of dopamine doesn’t make an experience feel less good.

When dopamine was suppressed in a study with lab rats, the rats showed “normal hedonic reaction patterns” — meaning they still showed normal pleasure responses — even though dopamine was suppressed.

RELATED: How To Trick Your Brain Into Releasing Chemicals That Make You Happy

In another rat study, this one using heroin, it was shown that dopamine transmission increased in the anticipation of the heroin administration but decreased sharply once the drug was administered (by the rats themselves). Notably, this effect wasn’t present the first time the rats self-administered the heroin because they hadn’t yet learned that the heroin was about to feel really good.


Dopamine is about learning that rewards feel good — so we can do them again.

This applies to riding roller coasters, having sex, masturbating, kissing our lover, watching our favorite sports teams win, and even holding our infant child.

Dopamine may also increase in anticipation of rewards where the reward is uncertain. So, a sure thing may lead to less anticipatory dopamine release than a gamble.

We don’t know why this is, but perhaps because there is more to learn from a gamble than from a sure thing. The sure thing offers little new information.

So why does the media's fascination with dopamine matter? Can’t this just be chalked up to lack of media sophistication and pop psychology misunderstanding the nuances?


Here's the big problem: When people such as Simon Sinek, whose viral video blames dopamine for millennials' problems in (and out of) the workplace, bring up neuroscience, they are using a clever strategy to manipulate us.

Mr. Sinek is not a neuroscientist and has not studied or researched the complexity of this aspect of the human brain.

Watch below as he craftily weaves a fairy tale about the dangers of dopamine and the millennials on which it preys.

But he does know something you don’t: Mentioning neuroscience is a great way to convince people you are more knowledgeable about something and make your arguments sound more convincing.


This effect was recently demonstrated by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, who showed that the use of irrelevant references to brain science is an effective way to lure people into thinking that complex phenomena are simple and easily explained by, well, the brain.

Handsome middle age man at consultation office holding brain pointing with finger to the cameraPhoto: / Shutterstock

(You may now trust this article more just because it shows the brain!)


People’s problems are never simple.

When a person does a thing over and over, even when the behavior is causing problems there are a great many complex reasons behind that behavior.

When we offer the reductively simple answer of “because, dopamine,” it distracts us from the person. It is the person who learns, and dopamine is merely one factor among many involved in the person's learning.

When we encourage people who are watching too much porn, using their cell phone while driving, or looking at Facebook every two minutes to blame their problems on dopamine, we teach them to externalize their problems and blame them on dopamine.

If we can shift our focus back to the learning and the salience aspects of these processes, it will help draw people’s attention back to their own behaviors, their own motivations, and the meaning that they (and their particular religious or social background) have given to this behavior or experience.


It helps us to put people back in the driver’s seat of their own lives.

So please, let’s start talking about people rather than irrelevant neurochemicals.

RELATED: The Real Reason Facebook Causes One-Third Of Divorces

Dr. David Ley is a clinical psychologist in practice in Albuquerque, New Mexico.