Has too much internet use turned you into an internet junkie?
If you’re looking for ways to mindlessly while away your time on the internet, you’re not lacking for choices.
But how much is too much?
According to a recent article from Forbes, 2021 saw a record 3.8 trillion hours spent on mobile apps worldwide. The average American spent 4.1 hours a day on their mobile devices, and social apps were by far the most popular, accounting for seven out of every 10 browsing minutes.
These numbers make it clear that even neurotypical people are struggling with excessive internet use. For the neurodivergent, including those diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the stakes are even higher.
The ADHD brain craves immediate gratification, and the internet has plenty of it to offer.
Bored? Check out the latest TikTok trend.
Feeling lonely? Just hit up Snapchat or scroll through Instagram.
Stressed out after a hard day at work? It must be time to head down a YouTube rabbit hole and learn something absolutely compelling so you can forget about it.
But following that impulse is not doing you any favors.
In fact, unconstrained connectivity may actually be making your ADHD symptoms worse.
Your brain neurochemistry the Internet, and ADHD
While the internet cannot cause ADHD (the condition is hardwired into your brain), a BMC Psychiatry study shows that it can absolutely exacerbate ADHD symptoms. And the more your symptoms increase, the harder it can be to shut off the screen.
The internet provides us with a couple of neurochemicals the ADHD brain is constantly seeking out – specifically, dopamine and norepinephrine.
Dopamine is known as “the reward molecule.” It affects our pleasure centers, giving us that little “rush” we feel when we get a Snap from a friend, see that someone has “liked” our status on Facebook, or finally beat a video game we’ve been struggling with. Additionally, and especially true for adults with ADHD, Dopamine is a neuromodulator associated with ‘pursuit and persistence’. It’s the chemical that keeps us focused on the end goal and helps us sustain difficult conditions toward a known result or goal.
Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that affects the way our brain instructs our body to act in certain situations. For our ancestors, it’s what they felt when the saber-tooth tiger approached the cave. For us, it’s what we feel when we compete in Mario cart, or doom scroll through the latest headlines. Sometimes it can trigger stress if we scroll through our friends’ jealousy-inducing Instagram pictures, or our ex’s Facebook profile.
People with ADHD often have fewer receptors and often lower levels of neuromodulators available.
People with ADHD often have lower levels of these neurochemicals, or fewer receptors causing them to actively seek out entertaining tasks. Online entertainment provides a lot of ‘bang’ for your effort and your brain is efficient. It’s constantly trying to make things easier on you. So the algorithms behind the scenes on all social platforms are DESIGNED to KEEP YOUR ATTENTION in order for them to sell more ads. In essence, your attention is easily hijacked and sold to the highest bidder. Additionally, these systems work faster than your consciousness. Once your senses are triggered, the internet can steal, adjust, refresh and maintain your attention for long bouts of time. It’s a perfect storm.
Compare it to a mechanical process. Norepinephrine is typically released when you need to change your state. You’re thirsty – norepinephrine dumps into your body to cause you to feel unsettled, and dopamine shows up in time to help you find a drink. Once you quench your thirst, you feel better and homeostasis is restored. However, that process required a lot more fuel. You had to recognize your physiological stimulus (I’m thirsty), think about it what to do, decide, change your gaze, and move your body to deliver your reward. It uses a lot more fuel than just picking up your device.
Since your brain is the hungriest organ in your body responsible for 20% of the calories you burn, it’s always looking for ways to increase efficiency and do less work. When it can, it will make things easier for itself.
And this is one of the reasons why unconstrained internet use has become the norm for so many. It’s easy. Social media apps, games, and social scrolling sessions provide just enough dopamine payoff for a very small cost of engagement. You burn less calories scrolling than you do taking action, so your brain says sure! It’s just too easy.
How to Avoid Excessive Internet Consumption, Gaming, and Doom Scroll
Once you understand how and why your brain reacts to stimuli like gaming, social media, and doom scroll, you can begin to find ways to help mitigate the toll it’s taking. Here are some suggestions.
1. Set Time Limits
The ADHD brain doesn’t always experience time the same way neurotypical brains do. Constraints help. Setting a timer with a commitment to put down your device as soon as it dings can help you reduce the amount of time you spend online.
2. Use a Productivity App
There are plenty of productivity apps that help you limit the time you spend online, block certain apps during certain times, manage your social media usage, and more.
3. Enlist an Accountability Partner
With ADHD trying to make changes in your behavior alone can be difficult if not impossible. Having a partner, friend, or family member help hold you accountable for the time you spend using your device makes it easier. IF you want to limit internet use, make a pact with a friend and stick to it.
4. Find Other Ways to “Get Your Fix”
You don’t have to be constantly connected to get the chemical hits your brain is craving. Exercising, catching up with a friend over coffee, or spending time on a favorite hobby gets you the same dopamine hit; watching a scary movie, getting out of your comfort zone, or riding a roller coaster provides the same norepinephrine as doom scrolling.
5. Perform a Social Media Purge
Social media has called into question the definition of the word “friend.” Sure, you want to stay in touch with your college roommate, but do you really need to know that Steve, who you met once at a business conference and never spoke to again, just bought a multi-million dollar mansion? Your emotional state can lead to too much internet use. Instead, tighten your circle so you’re able to focus on the people who really matter — and spend less time doing so.
6. Throw A Retro-Switch
One of the realities of digital living is the imaginary switch from analog (external reminders like clocks and watches) to digital (internal awareness, or remembering to check the time). This is significant and has universally disrupted our time-awareness. One of the ways to limit your internet use is to look for opportunities to trade out of digital and back to analog. For example, if you regularly use your device to read the latest bestseller but often get distracted by notifications, switch back to physical books. If you love gaming, get your friends together for a weekly board game night. The more time and attention you invest in the real world, the less time you’ll want to spend in the virtual one.
7. Physically Remove the Temptations To Too Much Internet Use
You can’t use your device if you can’t access it. The next time you go out to dinner, leave your phone at home. Charge your iPad on the kitchen counter at night instead of on your bedside table. Remember, every second you’re not online counts!
8. Identify Your Triggers
What makes you reach for your phone, tablet, or laptop? Does it happen most when you’re exhausted? Overwhelmed? Under-stimulated? If you know the why, you can be prepared when the triggers arrive.
9. Don’t Make it “All or Nothing”
Even if you feel you engage in too much internet use, when we deny ourselves what we want, we want more of it. That’s human nature. Stay conscious of the fact setting simple limits is not truly depriving you of social media or video games forever; it’s just for now. Your goal is to be more selective of when and how you use the internet, not to give it up for good!
In Conclusion, people with ADHD aren’t always the best about setting and sticking to limits, which can lead to too much time being spent on one activity at the expense of everything else. When you take a good look at your internet habits, you’ll be able to make better choices about how and when you allow it in your life!