Wednesday, February 23, 2022

What We Learned from Our Family Dopamine Detox Experience

I've been hearing a lot about dopamine lately. And the more I heard, the more I became convinced it was time for a family dopamine fast.

In a nutshell, dopamine is the feel-good chemical released in your brain whenever you do something enjoyable. It also plays a role in motivation, making it harder to enjoy or even start low-dopamine activities if you're indulging too much in high-dopamine ones.

While you wouldn't want to eliminate all dopamine (when scientists block the dopamine in mice's brains, the mice starve because they lack the motivation to eat), I decided it was time for a little experiment of our own: what would happen if we cut out things that added a lot of dopamine but little overall value to our lives?

Sadly, this was not a staged photo.

For one week, my family of 8  two adults plus six kids ages 5 to 17 — were going to try doing just that. For our purposes, we identified the following high-dopamine, low-value activities:
  1. Using computers or phones for any non-work or -school activities
  2. Playing video games
  3. Listening to music
  4. Eating sugar and processed food

After the week was up, I gave separate interviews to each member of the family, including myself, to see how it went.

Q: What did you like about the dopamine fast?

Me: Everything. The kids were less crabby. I wasn't constantly policing screen time or reeling the kids back in from watching someone else play Minecraft. When I couldn't pull out my phone during moments of downtime, I was more accessible to the kids. And I loved not having the teens wearing their headphones around the house closed off to the family or scrolling on their phones when I drove them somewhere like I'm the hired help.

Phillip: I was calmer and less stressed. I had more motivation to do things so I wasn't sitting around stressed about not doing things — I just did them. I found enjoyment in activities like reading and thinking. I interacted with the kids more.

17:  I used to listen to music or watch a video when I was bored; when I was forced to do something like reading a book, it took more energy in the short term but actually gave me energy and was more satisfying in the end. It forced me to slow down and think about what would actually make me feel better, so I felt less bad about how I was spending my time. I don't want to use my brain because I'm tired, but I feel better when I use my brain more. 

15: Everything felt more grounded and physical this week.  There were less days where I felt blah. I didn't do more things, but I felt less rushed when I did do things. I knew where all my time was going so that was nice.

13: Nobody was screaming and yelling about screens. We did more stuff together like board games, instead of me being off doing my own thing. I didn't really miss screens, even though my brain was like "I want to go back to screens!"

10: I liked how everybody wasn't grouchy because of screens. When I had screens I wanted to use my time as much as I could with no one bothering me so I would get grumpy and tired and it hurt my eyes, but I still wanted to play it. I also liked the no-screens part because my friend messages me too much, and I got to do more with family.

7: I don't know.

5: I didn't really get distracted [by watching other people playing games when I'm supposed to be doing something else.]

Q: What did you dislike?

Me: Nothing, really.

Phillip: I missed access to information. Sometimes I was curious about something but decided not to look it up. Like right now, I was wondering why trees don't freeze in the winter. Last week I wouldn't have looked it up, but this week I did and it's fascinating, actually.

17: I don't like doing homework with no music. There was also no easy distraction when I wanted to distract myself from negative thoughts I was having. I don't think cutting out sugar made any difference.

15: Sometimes it was inconvenient when I wanted to text something or check the [online] calendar and couldn't. I got bored a lot, like when I finished a test early at school and then just sat there for 50 minutes doing literally nothing. 

13: There were a few times when I was at activities where they had hot chocolate and it was annoying to turn it down.

10: I still want to have some sugar! And since I couldn't message my friend, if I had something to tell her I had to try to remember it until the next day and I didn't like going home and never talking to her again.

7: I kind of didn't have anything to do except read and play outside. I just didn't know what to do, it was kinda boring.

5: I can't have all the foods.

The kids may not have liked the "no sugar" rule, but no one can say they weren't committed. In the cabinet, I found our shaker of cinnamon sugar with a new label reading "POISON."

Q: What surprised you?

Me: I read a whole book this week, which would normally take me 6 months. I used to go on YouTube when I was tired, but I think it only made me more tired. I think it stresses my brain to keep switching between the real world and the virtual world. I was also surprised that I liked not using the car radio all week. Less constant sensory input like background music in the car made me feel more relaxed and slowed down.

Phillip: Nothing. It was basically what I expected.

17: I was expecting to miss certain online activities but I found other things to do with my time. I was also expecting to feel like I did a lot, but I think I ended up just doing things slower.

15: I expected to be more tired but I was actually less tired. I could just go home from work and do stuff, I didn't really need a break [to scroll my phone]. Also, I ended up getting offered a lot of sugar that week [namely a juice/chocolate muffin/donut breakfast, cupcakes, hot chocolate and candy, and two donuts with brownie batter filling] and before I probably would've eaten it all but felt bad about it. 

13: I expected to miss screens but I didn't, really. Which is weird because we've done screen-free weeks before and it was painful. [Mom's note: maybe because we focused on why instead of just me making a rule that seemed arbitrary to the kids.]

10: I thought it wouldn't be very good but it was okay. Kind of boring, though.

7: Nothing surprised me, I didn't even think about it.

5: I thought it would be worse than this but it's not.

Q: What do you want to do differently now that this is over?

Me: I want to confine all my Internet use to daytime hours and be totally present once the kids come home from school. I also want to drastically cut back screen time for all the kids. It has no benefit to them, especially the 5- and 7-year-old who just get crabby when it's time to stop playing. 

Phillip: The main thing I don't want to do is browsing so much. I want to go on the Internet with a specific question or purpose and then get off of it. So less idle browsing and refrain from using screens late in the evening.

17: I want to be more aware of why I'm looking for dopamine. I want to slow down and actually evaluate my options to see if I want to relax with a low-value, high-dopamine activity or do something else. I didn't always make that decision before, I just did it.

15: I kind of liked not have a phone at school because if you have your phone on you, you feel pressured to respond to calls and texts right away. I might not take it with me every day.

13: I used to think 30 minutes [my usual allowed screen time] wasn't much and I thought it was stupid that you guys cared so much, but there are better ways to spend my time so I'll only play maybe only every couple of days. And not too long. After you hit like an hour, you're not really even having fun anymore anyway, you're just doing it 'cause dopamine says so.

10: I want to do less screens, and pick an amount of time I can spend on them.

7: How am I supposed to know? I kinda just do stuff and then the day's over, that's what I do.

5: Go shopping because we need more food. We can get pistachios. [These weren't forbidden, by the way.]

Final Thoughts from Mom (Because Moms Always Get the Last Word)

None of us realized it before, but I think we were all a little addicted to the Internet. This week helped us all check ourselves and set the 'reset' button in that department. 

For us, the sugar part didn't make that much of a difference because we don't normally eat many processed food or sugary treats, but if that's your family's vice it might pan out differently for you.

The older kids were more introspective about our offline week, but I think the younger kids need more help finding meaningful activities to replace screen time. The next time we try this, I'll make sure to engage them in a good project or at least set them up with more playdates.

In the meantime, I'm definitely more likely to distract the younger kids when they ask for screen time (75% it ends in a tantrum, anyway.) Sometimes I say things to the older kids like "I thought you didn't want to play on a screen every day" and they'll more willingly limit their own screen time.

Living without the Internet as much as we could for even a week was nothing but good for the whole family especially for the kids and teens, who genuinely don't know what it's like not to grow up with a bazillion different bluetooth devices in their faces 24 hours a day. Attempting a detox like this is like swimming upstream in our dopamine-saturated world, but it sure does feel good to try sometimes.

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Megan said...

Very interesting!! I really enjoyed reading everyone's take on it.

Katie said...

How do you think you would handle it if you got more push back from one or more family members? Do you think that would negate some of the benefits, or would it still have been worth it? I’m imagining my own family here….!

Jenny Evans said...

Katie: That's a good question. It depends on the ages and personalities of the family members. For kids over 10, I would definitely recommend not going in and telling them exactly how it's going to be. I think this kind of thing only works as far as everyone is on board, so you want to all set the rules together.

I started by just talking about dopamine with the kids and watching some YouTube videos about what too much dopamine does to your brain. Later, I brought up the general idea of a dopamine fast and asked what everyone what they thought. You can have a vision of how you want it to go, but expect to compromise. If the kids can't handle the idea of a weeklong fast, what about two days? Or just video games instead of a bunch of stuff at once? If they have a good experience, they'll be more willing to try something more in the future.

Reminding them that it's only temporary, and/or letting them pick a family reward to look forward to at the end of it might also help. And for younger kids, distraction is a great strategy. You don't even need to necessarily tell kids under 8 or 10 what you're doing; you just keep them busy doing other stuff or invent a convenient reason for certain devices to be out of service for the week.