Digital Dopamine

No matter if I am looking out the window in the small nook of a library or on the windowsill of my childhood bedroom—for me, windows offer a beautiful sense of stillness: a muted pause that is so hard to find in a rapidly moving world. However, the full truth is that I am drawn to windows because they offer an escape—a deluding sense of escape from external weights and responsibilities. Yet, my windows lie. My windows hide their deception behind twinkling glass panes that offer an illusion of connection to the physical world. These windows placate my senses, and I have learned to delude myself into believing that I can still hear the whispers of trees, to naïvely imagine I can feel the full warmth of the sun through these transparent walls that enclose me. 

The thought of social media terrifies me because of my desperate need to escape. For me, social media is my most deceiving window—the most convincing lie and absolute distraction.

My windows that create this illusion of an escape from myself are not merely the physical “window.” Rather, they extend to the pastimes I enjoy most: immersing myself in a book, listening to a stream of podcasts or music, or losing myself on a run. Most of all, I see it in burying myself in my work, which provides such an automatic switch to autopilot—to ignore me. Through their never-ending onslaught of stimulation on my senses, my windows lie. They complete the shimmering mirage that I am growing and developing alongside life rather than watching life pass me by. They deceive me that I, too, am physically present with this reality while my mind retreats further from its material actuality into itself. These windows comfort me, providing a realistic fiction in a futile attempt for me to quiet my thoughts that are both nowhere and everywhere at once. As I pretend to be physically connected to the present, my actual reality peaks through the cracks of my illusion built upon fragile glass panes. A reality that breaks my desperate struggle to find any escape, any distraction, anything that will offer just one ounce of relief to escape the dissonance and confusion of comprehending my own life. What happens when the world around me can no longer offer itself as a distraction or a euphoric sense of freedom—when a book, a podcast, a song, or a run eventually fades to nothing and ceases to seduce? Where do we turn? 

In the 21st century, we turn to the internet. 

It is hard for me to remember that the internet is young, and social media is even younger. Only 10 years after the birth of the information age, “social media” became a widely-used digital platform. MySpace and Facebook were released in 2004, Instagram in 2010, Snapchat in 2011, and TikTok in 2016. It is hard for me to remember that “the internet” must still be rooted in the physical world. All things “digital” come back to an extraordinarily intense system of wires, routers, satellites, computers, and code that I cannot begin to comprehend. Nevertheless, it’s a system that dissolves our lives into pinpricks of data, coded into an arbitrary blend of numbers, letters, and symbols that have engulfed our lives in the time span of a mere decade. 

This random assortment of plastics and wires of the real, physical world has created this digital space. An endless stream of information that now dictates our lives, it has lent itself to the immaterial, a space that exists beyond. In many senses, the digital age of social media offers an additional window into each other’s lives, an alternative to the eternal intrinsic human need for relationships, and for intimate connections that have the ability to extend across physical borders and time. There is no limit to those we can interact with and the communities we find and create.

Social media offers a window, a literal screen, into each other’s lives. It offers a world of connection. Yet once again, I find this urge to lie. 

The fantasy social media offers pacifies our desire for connection. Yet how can social media replicate an entire relationship that starts with the comfortable pauses, the gentle murmur of two voices and the puncturing laughter, the melody of conversation? How can it capture the steady warmth and physical presence of a person beside you? It cannot. And the flimsy grasps that it makes to form these ties, the misleading emulation of a relationship, isolates me and causes me to distrust the human connection. It lies. 

What started as a harmless exploration of social media, a thrilling beginning to establish myself on social media, slowly became an overindulgence. Then, it evolved into a compulsive overconsumption and obsessive need to keep searching for the next new Instagram post, Snapchat story, Youtube video, or viral tweet that would eventually flood my brain with digital dopamine. Being offline became unnatural and alien—a buzzing in my head that could only be soothed by a mind-numbing scroll on the internet just to feel normal, to feel in control. And each time I went to scroll, to search for the slightest bit of that initial euphoric thrill and escape, to find joy in anything other than myself, I would come back with a deeper, more fundamental necessity to find something to block myself out. 

When the swirling mass of my thoughts becomes too immediate, too much, too loud, I turn to my phone. Social media mutes the ever-omnipresent abyss of my thoughts that have no beginning or end. What was so insidious is how social media distracts me from me;  how it started changing those who I cared for more deeply than I did for myself, and those personal relationships. When suddenly, my friends and family, once the only thing that could fight against my obsessive need to be online, became captured by the digital world as well. When we no longer could simply be together. It was then that I chose again to return to myself, to the present, and fight to truly be with others. 

The future sees what is called the metaverse a mere decade after the birth of social media. A fully digitized reality that exists solely in the virtual realm: a complete detachment from the physical, the now, and the present. 

And so, what happens then, when we move further and further from the physical reality, from the physical bonds that tie us together? What happens when we continue to dive deeper into the digital space, deeper into distraction, when simultaneously the unrelenting hunger of my mind only grows with an unquenchable thirst for a stream of ceaseless thoughts fed into its unfillable void?

To imagine a world free from distractions is one that allows us to start truly facing ourselves and gives us the courage to look inwards. A permission to stop running, to stop escaping, and to start living freely, in the now.