Continuing on our journey from Netflix to depression, we have identified the path. Every child is on it. Even though they don’t usually walk before 12 months old, most children take their first steps along this pathway soon after birth. Knowing where you and your child fall along it is a very important first step for everyone. In Part II, I hope to shed a little light on the real battle in front of us. Ground zero lies at the exact intersection of biology and technology. Dopamine is the crown.
The title of this post names Netflix, but they are not alone. There are many sides in this conflict. We’ll talk about gaming platforms and social media as well, but first, I thought I should provide a little context for those who may not know me enough to trust my words. I subscribe to all of the big 5 streaming media sites (Netflix, Amazon, Disney, AppleTV and Hulu). Although these days I don’t watch more than an hour or two a week. My kids are sizable consumers of this media. As a child, I devoured television and film such that I could probably finish the rest of this post using only movie quotes. Pigman’s Caine-Hackman Theory meme in Part I, should give me a little bit of street cred for those who know.
I played Atari, Intellivision, Commodore 64, Texas Instruments 994A, Nintendo, Mac, Sega Genesis, Play Station 2 (although I was an “adult” by that time) in that order. Somehow I also found time to get absolutely filthy dirty outside every day of my youth and played a couple sports at competitive levels. I’m a father of 4 boys ages ranging 10 to 20 and I’ve been Director of the Montessori Academy at Belmont Greene in Ashburn Virginia since 2001.
My work in those last two items on my CV have exposed me to most of the information and opinions’ I’m sharing now. However, all my childhood experiences prior to that have allowed me to fill in both sides of the child development picture. Like all of us, I can be accused of a Dunning Kruger moment now and then, but hopefully, at least on this topic, you may trust that I am able to grasp the true size of the ocean of knowledge relative to the amount I carry in my own bucket.
We left off in Part I with an admittedly, unnecessarily dramatic mention of dopamine. I waited until now to discuss it because it is important enough to have its own post. If you have not been introduced to this fascinating and complex biological function, you’ll soon see how this problem and any possible solutions really cannot be discussed without it.
Dopamine is naturally produced in the body as a neurotransmitter, which essentially facilitates the transfer of messages. Most notably, messages of pleasure. Basically, if something you’re doing feels good, dopamine is the bus and the driver.
However, recently, our understanding of dopamine has evolved beyond its role as merely the vehicle for pleasure. Turns out it is even more complex than we thought. Now, we know that each time our brains experience a hit of dopamine, our desire for repetition of that experience increases. In some cases, that desire may even turn into the search for a perceived biological need. In other words, dopamine plays a critical role in addictive behavior.
Dopamine is produced in real-world interactions such as listening to music, eating chocolate or petting the cat. It’s that little buzz you feel after exercise and of course figures heavily in sex and anything else you might do that feels good. Unless there is an underlying condition, in all of these examples, the body eventually shuts down dopamine production to signal the end of the experience. Time to put the chocolate away.
My man, Spock. Well, I guess half-man. I was always a Kirk fan as a kid, anyway. He doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario! Who wouldn’t want that guy as a role model? OK, yes, this image doesn’t match the quote. Spock actually said this in one of the best original Star Trek episodes of all time “Amok Time.” My brother and I would wrestle each other singing that fight song. Kirk’s ripped shirt and slash across the chest is epic. But I don’t really know how to create my own memes so I just borrowed this one from the internet.
Anyway, Spock was undoubtedly well-versed in 21st century human science, so he knows this already, but in that quote, he’s explaining dopamine. Something we recently learned is that dopamine is produced not just during enjoyable activities, but also in anticipation of these activities. Go science! Now if we can just learn how to make that pill to help someone grow a new kidney!
This wanting versus having idea of dopamine is a crucial point to comprehend when considering the impact of different stimuli. For instance, when we know something enjoyable is coming, but we don’t know when, our brains produce even more dopamine. Want an example? It’s Girl Scout cookie season, so I’ve got the perfect one. When I open that box of Samoas, I know those cookies are coming. I can feel that pleasure even before I smell or taste the cookies. In fact, some of you probably just got a little dopamine hit from reading that sentence. Now, take that cookie, start at the other side of the room, slowly bring it to your child and watch his response. He’s enjoying himself as soon as that cookie comes into view. Now, instead of giving him that cookie, have him sit down and tell him that a treat is coming soon. You can tell him this more than once and he’ll respond the same way each time. His desire for the treat may even increase (along with his efforts to obtain it) with the amount of times he hears it is on its way. Each time his brain receives that information, it will begin producing dopamine even though a part of his brain may also recognize he might never actually receive a cookie. He’s feeling both the pleasure of the imagined treat and, (because he has received cookies before) the perceived biological need, before it even materializes into reality.
Now let’s infuse this knowledge into what we learned in Part I. Beginning with our youngest children, we can imagine experiences, which might stimulate dopamine production in an average day. As I said, our earliest impulses are to work. To refine. At this age, we often perceive our efforts as a biological need and our motivation is facilitated by dopamine. The effort of putting a cap on a pen or struggling to zip our jackets, which may seem tedious to adults, is actually generating pleasurable or encouraging feelings as the dopamine facilitates the message of cause and effect. Effort and outcome.
Our senses refine as we grow, along with our awareness. We learn what we like and what we want and develop techniques for how to get it. The dopamine producing experiences to which we are exposed serve to categorize and prioritize a range of pleasure from zero to maximum stimulation. We instinctively begin to adjust our techniques to reduce the time and effort required to receive pleasure (I’m looking at you Skip Intro button). We learn how to get more bang for our buck. That’s human nature. Fortunately, in the real world, there are very few things which provide stimulation without effort. So regardless of how stimulating the activity may be, it is hard to sustain the effort needed continue it forever.
Humans existed this way for hundreds of thousands of years. It worked. Nobody died from overdoing anything, except maybe staying out in the jungle too long after dark. Drugs and alcohol finally clued us in on how fragile we actually are and how difficult it is for us to turn away from pleasure. Although this lesson is still routinely missed by millions of humans anyway. If you’re staying with me on this logic train, you might be thinking to yourself, “Hey, self. Drugs and alcohol provide pleasure without much effort. Hmmmm…” You’re exactly right. It is no accident that we do everything we can to keep these things away from our children.
Gambling is another major addiction and, arguably rounds out the big three. It doesn’t take Spock’s brain to recognize how the money makers have made gambling a nearly effortless endeavor. But still, these vices, as they have become known, have always applied to adults. Only in the last two decades have things gotten sketchy for kids. Anybody know what happened in 2011? The iPhone was introduced. But don’t take my word for it. Jonathan Haidt’s Website “After Babel” has all the data you could possibly want on the subject.
It is actually gambling that ties in most closely with the technology problem I’ve been detailing. This time, we’re talking about online gaming. We have brain scan ability now and some very smart people in the Department of Behavioral Science at Ariel University, Israel, have compared images and funcitonality of a gambling addicted brain to that of an online gaming addicted brain. Guess what? They are nearly identical. So we can infer the attraction of these two activities is also very similar. If that doesn’t concern you, remember that one of these activities is Federally regulated and illegal for children under 18. The other is not only considered appropriate for young children, but is actively marketed toward them by massive corporations and lovingly promoted and paid for by parents.
How can something that seems so benign and so commonplace in a child’s life even be spoken about in the same breath as something so obviously bad and illegal for children? If your child is a gamer, you don’t need a national dataset to reveal the answer. Just watch him play for an hour or two. Then, when you realize that dopamine is the real currency, things start to become a little more clear.
So, back to gaming. In addition to expanding on the unlimited variety of game content and realism of digital imagry, developers have begun to turn their attentions toward something called “Loot Boxes” or “Treasure Chests.” These items are usually available in some form or another in nearly every online game. They provide a chanced-based opportunity for the gamer to receive items to be used in the game. Loot boxes may appear in the same place every time with rotating contents, they may be hidden, or pop up randomly throughout game play. The boxes carry different values to the user ranging from in-game purpose to simple rarity. Some game developers also implant options for “in-game purchases”, actually selling these items for real dollars.
As far as the youngest gamers, nobody does this better than Roblox. This is a gaming platform, which allows users to create their own games. Frequency of use determines whether one game makes it and another disappears. There are games like “Big Paintball” “Prison Break” and games, which copycat successful themes like speed run and simulators. The child creates an avatar, which is just about infinitely customizable and some games are devoted entirely to that pursuit. Virtually all of these games involve rewards or some kind of in-game currency and loot boxes are a sure fire way to keep users engaged.
Roblox, like other major gaming services such as Xbox, Minecraft and others also offers its own currency for us in in-game microtransactions. Parents (or kids with mom or dad’s credit card) can buy Roblox for real money and spend them on avatar upgrades in a matter of seconds. If you’ve been to any 6 year old’s birthday party in the last couple of years, you’ve probably seen more than a few gaming gift cards and Robux changing hands.
Recently, Roblox developers have started creating games in which there is no quest. No bad guys, no puzzle. The entire game consists of receiving rewards, finding treasure chests and opening loot boxes. Finally someone decided to stop beating around the bush and cut right to the chase with a brand new game. It’s called…wait for it…”Lootbox Clicker.” That’s right. All you do is click until the lootbox opens and then move onto the next one.
As Spock said, in so many words, maximum dopamine is produced in anticipation of a reward. The very nature of Loot Boxes is to play on that biological process. The child knows the loot box is coming, but he might not know where, when or exactly what is in it. Consequently, the “effort” to receive these rewards and that all-important dopamine hit is simply to stay online longer.
Here’s another place we need to pause and let the idea sink in. Forget bitcoin. Game developers are mining dopamine!
OK. There was no way I was going to just leave that line hanging there without attaching an image from The Matrix. One of my all-time favorite sci-fi movies. The exploits of Neo and his crew against the agents holds the dominant plotline. All that excitement makes it easy to forget the original hook of the film -that humans are literally being farmed as batteries. Just like our unsuspecting children, they don’t even know it because their brains have been “distracted” by happy images. Meanwhile, their bodies are kept alive artificially, planted in massive crop structures…that is, until their resources are all used up. Sometimes life really does imitates art.
Ironically, the very medium through which we could watch this movie (and the 3 sequels that follow it) is the same entity giving our kids the blue pill. If that Matrix reference sailed over your head, you’re going to have to Google it, yourself. Alright. Fine. Here’s a link explaining the blue pill dilemma. Now, when you’re done reading this post, go watch the whole movie.
In consideration of the above, It should not surprise anyone that Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) is described in the DSM 5, which is the American Psychological Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, used to formally identify diagnosable conditions. It may surprise you, given the empirical evidence, that IGD has not made it out of the “needs more research” section of the manual. It seems the variables are a little too broad and the condition has evolved so rapidly, there aren’t enough clinical studies to support the formal designation.
At this point, I think I should point out something for readers who might be thinking “Hey, Bart, there’s plenty of good stuff on the internet. You can learn a lot from Youtube videos…” I agree with you. I’ll even go so far as to say you can learn amazing, important things on the internet that you simply cannot learn in real life. But in the next few paragraphs you’ll see that (assuming you’re not leafing through the pages of the dark web) content doesn’t really matter as much as we may think.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t also add that the Youtube content you’re consuming is not really your choice alone. Sure, originally you just wanted to learn how to unstick your garbage disposal, but 3 videos and an hour later you’re riveted to the lunacy of a flat-earther’s attempt to prove the horizon is flat and we never landed on the moon. Tristan Harris, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology (man, the name of that organization alone is its own statement) explains it in a talk he gave in 2021. “In over 1 billion hours of Youtube videos watched daily, 70% of them are from the recommendation system.” The algorithm chose your entertainment for you. Regardless of what you are watching, the ease of receiving that reward is enough to keep you online (even if the reward is the chemical and physiological response produced by outrage).
Most of what we have been discussing represents the unintended effects of an effort to create something entertaining, meaningful and perhaps even beneficial. Well, except for Loot Boxes. However, it seems that when all this began, we failed to acknowledge the first rule of new technology. That may be because these rules did not exist at the time. I admit, I only just learned about them myself. Anyway, the first rule of new technology -as explained by Aza Raskin and Tristan Harris is “Each time you invent new technology, you uncover a new class of responsibilities.” You may know this has become a pivotal point of contention in the ongoing AI discussion.
However, when we knowingly created an attention economy where dopamine is bought, sold and in some cases stolen, we failed to identify the new responsibilities, which resulted. It is too late for millions of teenagers, but this generation owes it to the next one to do better.
Oh boy. If I had an editor, he or she would probably be telling me that we have eclipsed the scrolling maximum for the average reader and now bordering on excessive word count. I’m fairly certain I lost 50% of my readers after Part I anyway. Out of respect for the rest of you hangers on, I’m going to end this post here so we can finish things up in Part III where we’ll talk about what the heck we can do about all this.
See you on the other side…