Monday, April 30, 2012

Dopamine, Parenting, and Social Media


I attended a lecture recently about parenting.  The speaker, a Ph.D. psychologist, talked a lot about biological factors such as neurotransmitters; specifically, about how motivating children can often be a contest between the parents’ goals for the child and the various dopamine sources available to him.  Put more simply, it’s really hard to get a kid to do his homework when he’s engrossed in a movie, video game, or the Internet.  “Just a sec” is the kid’s equivalent of the snooze button.

Another thread of the lecture involved the ways evolving society is making it even harder for kids to focus on activities like schoolwork, given the new distractions facing them, like texting and social media.  In addition to traditional sources of dopamine (e.g., calorie-dense food, booze, drugs) the lecturer mentioned “social commerce,” which she described as the kind of widespread but shallow interactions offered by sites like Facebook and Twitter.  These interactions, she declared, produce more dopamine than the deeper connections with close friends and family.

In this post I examine the intersection of dopamine, social media, and kids.  Whether or not you ultimately agree with my observations and philosophies, perhaps I’ll help you to ponder some good questions.

Dopamine and me

Dopamine isn’t happiness, and doesn’t lead to happiness.  It is the neurotransmitter most associated with pleasure.  From an evolutionary perspective, its job was to motivate the kind of behavior—e.g., eating as much calorie-dense food as possible—that would increase the chances of survival.  (If cavemen ate like supermodels, the human race wouldn’t have made it.)  Dopamine production is stimulated also by sex, novelty, high risk activities, rest, and sleep—anything ancient man needed to survive.  In modern society, dopamine is also produced by winning (and its illusory cousins like scoring in a video game), shopping, passive entertainment like TV, and even TV ads (which provide novelty and, I suppose, the notion of hope).

Personally, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with dopamine.  “Love” because hey, what’s not to love about pleasure?  Hate because I’ve experienced how dopamine can manipulate me.  As a teenager, especially during the year after my parents’ divorce, I got pretty heavily into TV, recording some pretty stupid programs and watching them all afternoon after school.  I felt glutted by cheap spectacle but was too lazy to figure out something better to do.  To this day I’m easily mesmerized by TV, as is my wife; our solution is to eschew it entirely (i.e., we don’t have cable, nor an antenna).  Occasionally we’ll go on a video binge, renting five or six episodes of, say, “30 Rock” and watching them over the course of an evening or two.

I’m similarly wary of caffeine.  As an impressionable youth I remember my dad getting almost panicky during a road trip due to caffeine withdrawal.  He explained, as we took an off-ramp to a convenience store, that if he didn’t have coffee every two hours he got a splitting headache.  I found this really disturbing, and as an adult I still prefer not to be beholden to caffeine (or any substance).  Don’t get me wrong:  I love the way caffeine makes me feel—but I also fear how it can enable us to deprive ourselves of sleep.  Meanwhile, I’m as cheap as they come and refuse to pay for Starbucks, fancy beans, all the equipment, etc.  So I use No-Doz, and only before bike rides.

Beyond these practical matters, I have an ideological problem with dopamine:  it makes me feel cheap—a slave to my most basic desires, like a lab hamster hammering a button to get food pellets.  The craving for something is base; the will power to resist this craving feels, to me, more evolved.  (Yes, I’m aware that though I am not a hamster in an experiment, I may yet resemble the dog trained to resist eating the milk-bone balanced on its snout until the master gives the okay.  Except that I am both the dog and the master.  My discipline is of a sort Don DeLillo has aptly described:  “You are making your own little totalitarian society ... where you are the dictator, absolutely, and also the oppressed people.”)

My neurotransmitter of choice?  Endorphins.  These I must earn, and getting them never feels like a failure of discipline.  So many desserts are advertized as “guilt-free”—note that there’s no need to construct the notion of a guilt-free workout.  But this isn’t just an ego thing.  Endorphins are simply more powerful.  If dopamine tells the brain, “that was nice,” endorphins offer actual exhilaration.

Dopamine and kids

Self-control such as I’ve just described is largely unavailable to kids.  I have often pondered how my own daughters—little angels though they may be—often seem a manifestation of pure appetite.  I’ll give you an example.  My younger daughter, when she was about four years old, got too much chocolate on Easter.  During the drive home from her grandma’s she hurled in the car.  A week or two later, at a birthday party, she asked if she could have a second “muffin.”  (She meant “cupcake,” but having never seen one before she thought it was just the tastiest damn muffin she’d ever had.)  I said to her, “No, that would be too much sugar.  Remember that giant chocolate rabbit you ate on Easter?  Do you really want to throw up like that again?”  She thought about this for a couple seconds and replied, “Yes!  Yes I do!”

Advertisers take full advantage of this unbridled desire, and peddle appalling things like sugary cereals directly to kids, harnessing the youngsters’ amazing whining power.  Advertisers push especially hard on teenagers, taking advantage of the awful combination of spending money and the lack of a fully formed prefrontal cortex (the seat of restraint and good judgment).  There’s another reason my family doesn’t have cable TV:  commercials.  I refuse to go toe-to-toe with the great evil advertising minds.  It’s much easier to remove the temptation than to fight it.

So it is with the ice cream truck.  You may think of this truck as a standard part of childhood, something you may even feel nostalgia for.  Not me.  In my book, the ice cream man is a terrorist.  My brothers and I would be happily playing with friends, and then we’d heard the music of the approaching truck, and the play would be forgotten as our friends would run inside and beg their moms for money—a fusillade of relentless pleading—and then, money in hand, they’d tear out into the street toward that truck as though their lives depended on it.  Then they’d eat their overpriced ice cream in front of my brothers and me as the truck drove on, seeding unrest through every neighborhood in its path.

Am I just bitter, envious to have missed out?  No, that’s not it.  Even as a kid I had found it a disgusting spectacle, from beginning to end.  Fast-forward a couple of decades:  the first time, as a parent, that I heard the ice cream truck coming, I launched a preemptive strike:  “Run to the windows, girls!” I cried.  “It’s the music truck!”  Fascinated, my daughters asked me what it was all about.  “He just drives around, playing music for kids,” I said.  After two or three years of this, my older daughter said, “Hey!  He’s not just playing music, he’s selling ice cream!”  I casually replied, “Yeah, well, that too.”  She fired back, “Can I have some money?”  I said, “Absolutely not, ever.  Don’t even ask.”

Dopamine and social media

It’s all well and good to make fun of kids and their cravings, but adults are pretty good at facilitating their own dopamine production:  faster, sportier cars; premium tequila and countless new microbrews; ever-fancier coffee beans and grinders and home espresso makers; clever ways to introduce dopamine into exercise, like heart rate monitors and Strava; and, to an explosive degree, social media.

To reiterate, social media serves a different role than close friends and family.  Close relationships are probably more closely associated with serotonin; in any event, they aren’t the same thing as social commerce.  When a person from your past comes out of nowhere and “friends” you, showing that he or she hasn’t forgotten about you and wants to get back in touch, that’s got to feel good.  I reckon that each time somebody posts something to your wall, you get a little dopamine hit.  I googled “facebook dopamine” and right away found an essay describing how the dopamine produced by social media is so powerful as to be addictive.  This essay cites a study of how often, and in what contexts, people are stopping what they’re doing to check in on their social media sites.  For example, 34% of those under 35 actually admit to doing this during a date.  (We could almost infer from this that social media offers more dopamine than sex, because after all, who’s going to get lucky after being so unconscionably rude to his date?)

I am not above this quasi-addiction.  It kind of crept up on me.  In general, I’ve had a policy of avoiding social networks like Facebook and Twitter.  As much as anything this stems from a “New Yorker” cartoon I saw way back in 1997:  a man sits at a computer, and his little daughter, in her pajamas holding a teddy bear, taps him on the shoulder; he says, “Honey, please don’t talk to Daddy when he’s in a chat room.”  Such a prescient cartoon, anticipating the bizarre epidemic of people ignoring those around them in favor of a burst of off-the-cuff text from an unseen correspondent.  (The comic comeuppance continues in the “New Yorker” here and here.)

I will acknowledge that I’ve enjoyed Twitter occasionally, following professional cyclists.  There is sometimes a refreshing unguarded quality to athletes’ tweets, particularly when their competition-induced neurotransmitters are still firing away.  (In fact, one team has instituted a one-hour moratorium on all post-race tweets from its riders.)  But I can’t dish it out:  I am certain that nothing in my life warrants a blow-by-blow of my activities, and it would be a bored person indeed who would bother to read them.  Moreover, I think every tweet is a partial lie.  Why?  Because whatever you claim to be doing, you’re actually doing that plus tweeting.  If I were to tweet, “I’m hanging out with my kids,” and you were able to ask my kids what I was doing at that moment, they’d say, “Playing with his phone.”

Where dopamine has gotten hold of me through social media is through this very blog.  When I conceived of albertnet, my goal was simply to write little essays and stories and have some sort of audience, however small or random.  It was never my goal to have a reciprocal communication with anybody, and for the first couple years it was almost impossible to know who, if anybody, was reading my blog.  Occasionally somebody would post a comment, or e-mail me about a post, but that was, and is, exceedingly rare—which is fine.  I’m not trying to “deliver an audience,” but to write whatever I want and if someone reads it, great.  I joked about my readership apprehension and “screw the reader” philosophy in a post a couple years ago:  “Where this blog is concerned, ‘screw the reader’ may end up meaning ‘screw exactly one reader’ (sorry Mom).”

But then, some months ago, a wealth of statistics suddenly became available to me.  Now, I can look at pageviews for the last day, week, month, and all-time.  I can see who is reading what posts at this very moment.  I can see where in the world they hail from, and I can see how they found my post.  (Sometimes the search terms are very funny; one hit on my vasectomy post was a search on the phrase “will vasectomy make my testicles droop.”  Sometimes the search terms are flattering, like the search on “albertnet suffering cold-pressor test,” clearly from a repeat viewer.) 

What I discovered is that this blog is more popular than I had ever thought (though it’s entirely possible pageviews represent Google misfires rather than people actually reading my posts).  Now I find myself tracking the pageviews of every new post.  Whenever that number is higher than I expected, or just higher than it was yesterday, I get a little hit of dopamine.  I must be, because I have come to find this activity oddly compelling, in the way that beating your old score at a video game is compelling.  That is, in that dopamine-glutted way that starts to make me feel like a loser.  I’m strongly considering swearing off pageview viewing altogether, or strictly rationing it.  But I’m not sure I have the will power.

Dopamine + kids + social media

Consider that I, an annoyingly disciplined person, distrustful of dopamine response, and with a fully-formed prefrontal cortex, am all but addicted to Blogger pageview stats—probably the least compelling of all social media.  How, then, can a teenager even stand a chance against it?  Here is a source of dopamine that many, if not most, teenagers have unlimited access to.  It doesn’t cost money, they’re not going to get carded, and in many cases their parents give them carte blanche, assuming access to social media is as innocuous, ubiquitous, and mainstream as running water or electricity.

And yet, sites like Facebook strike me as a social minefield for teenagers in particular.  I’ve heard enough about adults offending one another, embarrassing themselves, wishing they hadn’t friended somebody, wondering how to extract themselves, etc.  And these are the people who have presumably learned how to get along—at least, who should be closer to social poise than they were in junior high.  As the writer Lore Segal has written (in a telegram sent by one of her characters), “'PROTOCOL IS THE ART OF NOT REPEAT NOT LIVING BY NATURAL HUMAN FEELING.”  This protocol is far beyond the grasp of the average teenager.  Isn’t the hormone-ravaged teen existence hard enough without a constantly evolving online social world?  Probably the worst aspect of social media is that it takes those terribly embarrassing teen moments that , a generation ago, would have faded into distant memory, and makes them permanent.

I’m grateful that the sudden rise of social media has taken place before my own kids are really old enough to participate.  This is giving my wife and me a chance to figure out, in advance, a family Internet acceptable use policy.  It probably sounds like I’m joking and I admit that phrase sounds corny, but I’m serious.  It’s very tempting to assume that anything involving technology is good for our kids.  Parents brag about it:  “I can’t figure out how to set up a new printer, but my ten-year-old is a whiz at it!”  People talk of “digital natives” vs. “digital immigrants,” and a parent could be excused for believing that facility with computers and the Internet might make his or her child the next Mark Zuckerberg. But this idea is actually pretty absurd. I recently read a newspaper article about an expensive private school in the Silicon Valley that bans computers and other high-tech gadgets; one of the parents, a Google employee with a computer science degree, reminds us that computers and related technologies are designed to be idiot-proof: “It’s super easy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste. At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. ”

In other words, facility with computers doesn’t say much about a young person’s intelligence or career prospects; the ability to consume any technology has little do to with creating it. To put it another way, your kid isn’t going to be the next great food scientist just because he enjoys eating at McDonald’s.  So my strategy as a parent is to restrict my kids' access to computers and other passive entertainment sources in favor of books and other traditional kid stuff. 

Meanwhile, there's the issue of security. After taking great pains to put our kids in a good school and thus surround them with good peers, my wife and I aren’t about to let them roam the great untamable Internet unheeded.  In the context of the Internet, the movie ratings system seems kind of quaint; if you had to rate the Internet as a whole, it would have to be X—but there’s no ticket taker to turn kids away.  What’s to keep kids from unknowingly corresponding with wackos, and/or stumbling on images they come to wish they hadn’t?

Meanwhile, Internet gaming runs from the educational to the merely time-wasting to the hideously violent; why should I let my kids decide what’s appropriate?  (At least they’re both girls.)  I let my older daughter play two kinds of games:  those specifically assigned in school, and those that teach her the Dvorak keyboard layout.  Nothing else is even on the table.  Even if they found suitable games, I’m not about to allow them, because video games are addictive—they create a dopamine-fueled drive for bigger scores, driving a compulsion to play without any legitimate reward.  I am not just speculating.  I was a videot myself as a teenager (though at least then I had to ride my bike across town and compete for gaming machines with other non-virtual youths).

Parents I’ve talked to have responded to this approach by saying, “Won’t depriving your kids just create a pent-up demand, and cause them to rebel and go too far in the opposite direction?” Perhaps—but I’m betting it won’t. In my household videos are severely restricted (if I had to put our policy in words it would go something like “In general you may not watch them, though we’ll make exceptions as we see fit”). Here, my younger daughter cleverly tried to get permission for a video while my wife was on the phone. It was a good strategy ... maybe next time it’ll actually work.

Has this policy created an outsized craving for videos? Not really—my daughters love watching them, but their expectations are realistic and they don’t often hassle my wife and me about it. For example: the other evening my older daughter put in a video. (She’d cleared it with her mom.) I was happy to watch with her and her sister because, as I’ve described before, I do enjoy some good lowbrow entertainment and the movie was “Monsters Vs. Aliens.” Imagine my surprise when, after ten or fifteen minutes, my daughter abruptly turned it off and said, “I have to practice piano.” Equally shocking was that her little sister took this in stride.

What about older kids?  When my daughters are teenagers, will I let them have Facebook or Google Plus accounts?  I’m conflicted on that one.  Part of me wants to say “no,” and the other part of me wants to say “hell, no.”  Will they get these accounts anyway, behind my back?  Possibly.  But at least they won’t have smartphones to stare into—on that point my wife and I are firmly resolved.  Part of this is selfish:  when I’m with my kids, I want them to engage with me, not think of me as mere background static as they pour their attention into a handheld electronic device.  It’s bad enough when their noses are in books and I can’t get their attention; at least reading is something I can share with them, rather than having them look down upon me as a dopey old person on the wrong side of the digital divide.  (The smartphone may be the most sophisticated parental-estrangement device ever created; click here for details.)  And who knows, maybe we’ll get lucky and three years from now the social media revolution will have fizzled, like disco, breakdancing, and the Macarena.

But wait, you might say, the Internet is so cool, and opens up such a wide world of worthwhile stuff, and social media enables your kids to connect with friends even when they can’t get together in person!  What’s wrong with that?  What kind of deprivation-obsessed fascist are you?  What are you gonna do, send your ten-year-old outside by herself to blow bubbles with the little party-favor wand from her sister’s birthday?  No, we don’t keep that junk around.  Check this out:

I’d researched how to make my own bubble mix at home, but it looked complicated and I needed glycerin and where would I find that?  And yet, my daughter somehow figured out how to make the best bubble solution I’ve ever seen, so robust you don’t even need a wand.  It’s amazing how resourceful a kid can be when she doesn’t have anything “better” (i.e., easier) to do.

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