Some take cocaine and some play online games. Yet, few see the connection. Both induce dopamine secretion in the brain which makes the pleasure centre in the brain light up, and both are addictive. We might replace cocaine with fentanyl or opioids, or one video game with another, yet the effect would be the same. Every addiction stimulates that part of the brain that deals with pleasure—it’s called the reward system. This is where it gets its name! The reward system lights up because certain chemicals are secreted there — chemicals called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters make us feel good by activating receptors on neurons (brain cells). One such neurotransmitter is dopamine; it secretes when we experience something rewarding, like having sex or winning a prize. Why does it light up? Because the brain releases a chemical called dopamine which induces a feeling that all is right with the world and nothing can go wrong.
As the brain gets consumed with dopamine; anxiety, fears, worries, and threats melt away—but only for a short term. It’s well established that these dopamine-triggering addictions have serious health impacts. This is why we classify cocaine, fentanyl, or even opioids as illegal. But when the same dopamine is triggered by an online game, social media video platform or porn site, its impact on users is not considered worthy of much concern. That these platforms are enslaving a generation of citizens into out-of-control dopamine loops has been well-chronicled in research and even books. For those interested, I have created a list of research papers and books on this subject here.
The dopamine-driven feedback loop is a self-perpetuating, “positive” type — as the addictions set in, the brain’s reward system signals the body to ingest more of the addictive substance to perpetuate the “high”. Dopamine brings a rush of pleasure into the brain which is triggered every time you pull the screen down to refresh your Twitter feed or every time those coins bounce into your account in an online game. It reminds you of a slot machine where you pull down the lever and surprisingly, every pull is rewarded with coins, every single time. This pleasure-creating reward makes you want to keep performing the same action again, and again and again. The brain gets stuck into a never-ending loop of dopamine-triggering addiction. This is why kids addicted to online games don’t want to take a break to eat, sleep, or, many times, even take a bathroom break. They are caught in this loop. This action and reward loop basically reinforces itself. This reinforced learning is similar to the brain being rewired to do the same action, repeatedly, irrespective of the environment. This is addiction. Hence, when in 2018, the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified online games as a disorder, it happened after almost a decade of research by scientists and psychiatrists into this behaviour.
Children playing online games is like being fed cocaine
Given the well-researched evidence, it is indefensible for parents, corporations, and policymakers to allow children to this addiction so early in life. Children as young as one-year-old are given touch screens; parents put on YouTube videos that play in a loop. The child is so addicted to these videos and the touch screens that they would cry or not eat without these videos. Parents put the screen as a pacifier, the beginning of the dopamine loop of reinforcement. Most parents are proud that their children can turn on a mobile phone or iPad and switch on these YouTube videos. Little do they realise that they are feeding their own children cocaine.
Yes, cocaine is the same banned substance that conjures images of people with needles, injecting themselves, or snorting it. Who would want their kid addicted? Cocaine also plays with the same part of the brain that works on dopamine. Yes, it enhances dopamine to such a high level that it gives what users call a rush. To understand how cocaine works, see this video prepared by the National Institute of Health. I am exaggerating the correlation between cocaine and online games as cocaine releases a much higher dosage of dopamine but my point is, both are addictive for anyone.
There are enough research videos by NIH on the way cocaine is addictive, and how it alters the pleasure zones of the brain and interferes with dopamine secretion, absorption, and production. Research says that pathological gaming is associated with higher rates of mental illness and bears a strong resemblance to substance use disorders (SUDs–the scientific term for cocaine and other banned substance addiction). Diagnostic criteria proposed for “Internet gaming disorder” in the appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) share similar criteria to many SUDs. To read more about the connection and why Internet Gaming Disorder can lead to substance abuse disorder, see this paper.
Therefore, these games can lead to addictive behaviour that can lead to substance abuse. This journey from online addiction to substance addiction can only be curbed through policy interventions. By taxing the time spent by players on a platform, by restricting certain platforms during the week, or by curbing the doom scrolls.
Internet entrepreneurs, addiction, and policymakers
The persuasion loops created by entrepreneurs of Internet gaming and social media apps are now using Artificial Intelligence (AI) engines to customise feeds and self-reinforcing dopamine loops that suck and soak our attention. What started with manipulating our minds with ‘likes’ has evolved into a much bigger play with videos influencing our minds and behaviours. Especially young minds are being influenced by videos of eating disorders to a self-image which is leading to depression and other mental disorders.
We are already in a metaverse where our minutes, hours, and days are managed, controlled, and run by AI engines. AI-led entertainment is now spamming our lives, pinging and infringing on every app on our phones every second of our lives. Even your credit card bill payment app like Cred has gamified itself so that you earn Rs 4 or Rs 3 if you play a game of spinning roulette with the app. The objective of this so-called FinTech app run is also to suck in your attention for the longest time after you paid your bill. Why? So that it builds a repeatability loop and programs your mind to come back to it even when you don’t have a credit card bill to pay but have a little time to spend.
The tedium or boredom of life is vanishing into the virtual world. With it is vanishing some of the most critical skills that are needed like creativity or thinking and even daydreaming. Boredom breeds creativity. Tedium gives way to breakthrough ideas. While our brains are fried and burnt with perpetual dopamine loops, policymakers are living on the platform. Not only are they not worried about what is happening to the next generation but they are creating policy that benefits these same brain-addling platforms by allowing them to self-regulate.
If India’s demographic squanders its time and youth on these endless dopamine loops. the future of India is bleak. Indian policymakers must realise these platforms from perpetuating these toxic addictions.
K Yatish Rajawat is a public policy researcher and works at the Gurgaon-based think and do tank Centre for Innovation in Public Policy (CIPP). Views expressed are personal.
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