Cheap Dopamine: How Social Media Apps Mess With Your Mind

Cheap dopamine is ruining your life in one way or another.

Especially the cheap dopamine that comes with using social media too often.

If you want to rewire your mind for focus so you can spend more time doing things that matter— things that fulfill you, things that “give” more than they “take”—then you must understand how the reward center of your brain works.

But first…


What is “cheap dopamine”?

You’re probably familiar with dopamine. At the very least, you’ve heard the term before. Here’s a comprehensive definition so you know what you’re dealing with:

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that is important for several brain and body functions. It influences movement, memory, motivation, pleasure, and reward.

Dopamine is released during pleasurable activities, reinforcing behaviors that are essential for survival (i.e., eating and reproduction). This makes dopamine fundamental for feelings of happiness and motivation.

Dopamine also regulates movement and coordination, and imbalances in dopamine levels are linked to neurological and psychiatric disorders.

For instance, low levels of dopamine are associated with conditions like Parkinson’s disease and depression, while high levels can be related to conditions such as schizophrenia and mania.

Dopamine is neither good nor bad. It’s just a chemical.

Cheap dopamine, however, refers to quick and easy hits of dopamine.

I think of it as the fast food version of happiness: Cheap dopamine activities are fun and rewarding in the short term but often lack long-term benefits. 

The trick is getting it from healthy places instead of cheap dopamine sources that hurt your productivity or overall well-being.

Cheap Dopamine SourcesHealthy Dopamine Sources
Junk foodExercise
Video gamesHealthy Eating
Binge-watching showsMeditation and mindfulness
Alcohol and drugsSocial connections
GamblingAchieving goals
Social mediaGetting enough sleep

Of course, no one will completely eliminate cheap dopamine sources. But the goal is to minimize cheap dopamine and invest more time and energy into healthy dopamine sources.

Too much time spent on cheap dopamine activities can lead to a lack of purpose or even anxiety and depression.

And cheap dopamine can be addictive.

Let’s take, for example, social media.

Parallels have been made between drug addiction and excessive social media use, with research showing negative outcomes: poor decision-making, the exploitation of our brain’s reward system, and habits that are hard to break and lead to dependency.

Social media [has become] a way to drugify human connection. (McNamara, 2021)

At first, it’s harmless. You get a high from consuming it. It’s fun. You like it, but you don’t crave it so much that it interferes with your day-to-day life.

But whenever there is a trigger to do so (we’ll talk in-depth about that in a second), you go back to that cheap dopamine source to get that feeling again.

You consume a bit more than last time. This cycle repeats until the next thing you know, you can experience real withdrawals if you stop consuming social media.

These algorithms are designed to keep us coming back for more, and unconscious habits creep into our lives—to the point where it’s very difficult to change.

Let’s talk about how the cheap dopamine of social media messes with your mind and how to to overcome it.


Confessions from former social media bosses

Several top social media executives have banned their children from getting smartphones.

Former executives from these companies have spoken up about the negative effects of social media use.

I think we have created tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. You are being programmed.

—Chamath Palihapitiya

What’s worse is that these companies have every reason to keep you hooked. I don’t think it started out this way, but once the genie is out of the bottle it’s hard to put it back in. Incentives can explain why we’re in this position today.

Charlie Munger said:

If you know the incentive, you know the outcome.

Social media companies need to make money. To make money, they attract advertisers to promote their products on the platform. To get more advertisers, they need more users to stay on longer. To get more users to stay on longer, they need to make these apps as addicting as possible.

It starts off as a mission to make the product better and more entertaining, and then it quickly turns into…


The creation of a psychological weapon

This is the process your brain goes through that gets you hooked on these apps. 


The persuasive “habit loop” keeping you hooked

“Hooked” by Nir Eyal explains the process behind building habit-forming products and the process your mind goes through to become more addicted.

If you want to build an addicting product, you need to create a “slot machine effect.”

Slot machines are addicting because they play on your mind’s variable reward system. You pull the slot lever, and you lose…but you almost win. You get two kings in a row instead of three.

Every once in a while, you do win a small jackpot. This combination of wins and near wins tricks your mind into thinking the next win is just around the corner.

Think of a notification you get from a social media app. You’re never quite sure what’s going to happen after you click.

Will you see a funny video?

Did your crush finally admit they love you?

Is one of your fans or peers going to praise you for your content?

This is a huge struggle content creators like me deal with every day.

You just don’t know, so you go to the app to find out. The answer is different every time, so you stay hooked. You then cycle through these phases that make you even more hooked.


The 4 insidious phases that addict you

With each investment you make, the social media algorithm gets another piece of information it can use to train you to become even more addicted. Here’s how it works:

1. Trigger or Cue: You get a cue from your environment that sparks a new behavior loop. It could be an internal trigger like boredom, stress, or a need for stimulation. Or it could be an external trigger like a notification from an app or seeing someone else using their phone.

2. Action: This is the action you take based on the trigger, like unlocking your phone and opening the app after you hear your phone buzz. 

3. Variable Reward: The slot machine effect kicks in through new content, likes, comments, etc. 

4. Investment: The more time you invest into something, the more invested you’ll be in the future. The final step closes the loop by loading the next trigger. For social media, the investment could be commenting, liking, or sharing content to increase future rewards. For slots, it would be putting more money into the machine for the next spin.

Social media algorithms take your past behavior and use it to predict what you might like next.

They check how long you view a post or video, and whether or not you react to it or share it. It takes note of which posts cause you to get bored and leave the app. It makes sure not to post that style of content again and replaces it with something you do like until the algorithm knows you better than you do.

If past social media content wasn’t bad enough, we now have short-form content with apps like TikTok that are hyper-addictive because you get new, rapid pieces of content hurled at you constantly.

I used to make fun of TikTok. Then, one day, I decided to give it a try. I saw a funny video and hit like. I saw a couple more and hit like. I was shocked by how quickly the app learned what I liked. 

Next thing you know, I was on TikTok for hours. I try to avoid using the app altogether because I know I could ruin my productivity for the day if I do.

When it comes to getting rid of cheap dopamine forces, start taking your social media use more seriously than you do now.


The negative effects of cheap dopamine

I like to use this sales script when a potential client tells me they don’t have the time to take my program.

I remember one time I complained to my wife that I didn’t have enough time to write. She rolled her eyes and told me to give her my phone. She showed me my screen time on my phone and said ‘Hey I found some time for you.’

It’s a tongue-in-cheek response used to close deals, but in reality, this is something you can do to realize just how much time cheap dopamine is costing you.

They have a saying in addiction recovery circles:

The first step to fixing the problem is admitting you have a problem.

Most people don’t think of themselves as someone who has an addiction to the cheap dopamine of social media. But the screen time on their phone tells a different story.

So, try it now, go look at yours.

It might be much higher than you think.

Imagine what your life could be like if you replaced all the time you spend on social media with activities that benefit your life, like starting a new business, working out, or becoming a creator of content instead of a consumer of content.

Aside from wasted time, take time to think deeply about all the negative consequences of cheap dopamine so you can resolve to avoid it in the future:

  • You develop a true addiction to social media because you’re hooked on those endless scrolls and refreshes.
  • Your relationships suffer as you neglect friends and family for online attention.
  • You can go through mental health challenges as you obsess over likes, compare yourself to others, and let negativity consume your feeds.
  • You can ruin your physical health from a lack of physical activity and bad sleep habits from staying up to scroll at night
  • Your productivity falls apart because you can’t focus on work, chores, or goals when you’re always distracted by your apps.
  • You waste money constantly making impulse purchases from social media ads.
  • You experience low self-esteem from basing your worth on validation and approval from people online

Some people say social media is destroying society. Whether or not that’s true, cheap dopamine sources certainly contribute to serious societal problems.

It’s time to take your relationship with cheap dopamine seriously.


How to re-wire your mind for success

I wrote an article on how to do a dopamine detox to reset your brain chemistry so you can be more productive.

Here’s the TL: DR from that post:

@workingstudentlife This is your sign to do a dopamine detox!! 🧼 I’ve put together the 3 best tips to do an effective detox. Read them with our 🔗 in bi0  #dopaminedetoxing #howtodetoxmind #detoxingtips #howtodetox #detoxingclean #bestadvice2023 #lifehacks2023 ♬ original sound – Music table

A dopamine detox works like a drug detox. Write down your biggest digital/dopamine addictions and rank them. For at least a day, cut out those triggers entirely—no phones, no TV, no infinite feeds. Push through the withdrawals by staying present with activities like meditation, exercise, and nature walks.

Don’t try to go completely cold turkey, though. That’s unsustainable.

Build new rules and habits instead: Time-box your social media use. Take digital sabbaths. Don’t check your phone until completing morning priorities. Use time blocking for deep work sessions on meaningful tasks.

After you do a dopamine detox, now it’s time to start replacing cheap dopamine sources with healthier ones.

This happened to me when I started writing online.

Writing online gave me massive shots of dopamine, which inspired me to write even more. This “healthy addiction” helped me become a full-time writer, quit my job, and make a living doing what I loved.

As time went on, I started to add new sources of healthy dopamine naturally because I wanted to level up more areas of my life thanks to the momentum I got from writing. I exercised more, read books, and switched from TV and mindless social media use to educational content like podcasts, documentaries, and audiobooks.

I still consume cheap sources of dopamine, but not nearly as much as I did before I found a mission to work toward. Instead of getting cheap dopamine from something like a video game, turn your life into a video game and build positive habits that make your life better.

You can’t change the way your brain is wired, but you can change your environment.

Make your brain’s wiring work for you instead of against you.

It’s all about switching your dopamine source.

It won’t be easy. You will have setbacks. But once you re-wire your mind, you’ll only be “addicted” to success.