scorecardI spend all day on the internet because I'm paid to write about it. Can trying the TikTok 'dopamine detox' trend save my frazzled brain?
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I spend all day on the internet because I'm paid to write about it. Can trying the TikTok 'dopamine detox' trend save my frazzled brain?

Kieran Press-Reynolds   

I spend all day on the internet because I'm paid to write about it. Can trying the TikTok 'dopamine detox' trend save my frazzled brain?
LifeThelife5 min read
  • The "dopamine detox" wellness fad has been around for years, but lately, it's gained traction on TikTok.
  • It involves minimizing — if not completely ceasing — phone, TV, and other screen time use.

Screens have become so pervasive that many people now can't bear to eat a meal or ride a train without watching something or looking at one. Most of us begin and end our days by either endlessly doomscrolling through digital sludge or joyscrolling through happy-making memes.

We have become socially and emotionally dependent on screens.

"Dopamine detoxing," a wellness trend that's gained recent traction on TikTok, offers a possible solution. The idea is to try to source dopamine, or the natural brain chemical that makes you feel good, from anywhere other than your smartphone or TV. Most participants stop using social media, eat meals in silence, and don't check their phones for at least an hour after waking up. Some TikTokers' are detoxing beyond tech, like swapping soda for water. Is it time for a DOPAMINE DETOX? #inspirationalquotes #factsoflife #lifelesson #dopamine #dopaminedetox ♬ Originalton - Raijay Jason

"You're unhappy because you're constantly happy — it's now normal to be drowning in dopamine," TikToker says in his viral video about the trend. "When you start embracing silence, solitude, and space to think, boring things become absolutely beautiful."

TikTokers who've tried the trend generally speak positively about it. They said detoxing cleared their brain fog and helped them enjoy living again. Perhaps the most striking observation I saw was by a participant who said that on detox day five they felt like "a kid again" — as though by not using technology, someone could access a feeling that they haven't felt in decades.

@yeetusstudy do it if ur bad xxx #studytok #uni #alevels #gcse #detox #phonedetox #dopaminedetox #procrastination #addictedtosocialmedia ♬ kahoot theme - aixe

I wanted to try the detox for myself. As someone who is paid to write about internet culture and thus spends hours every day thinking about trends, influencers, and social media dramas, I was curious to see if dopamine detoxing could cleanse my frazzled brain. I also wanted to know if it would even be possible for me to unplug, considering I'm incentivized to be plugged in five days a week.

Over a recent three-day weekend, I underwent a drastic detox: I committed to only 10 minutes of social media use a day and no phone use unless I needed it for texts or logistical planning.

When I finished the dopamine detox on Monday night, I was disappointed that I didn't experience any major seismic shifts. But I could see just how impactful the trend could be if I stuck with it for longer. Here are some of the biggest takeaways from my mini screen diet.

The dopamine detox wasn't too hard…mostly because I kept a busy schedule

The internet is woven so deeply into my life that I thought it would be impossible to fight the Pavlovian urge to flick through apps.

But, surprisingly, it wasn't so hard because I packed my schedule with other engaging real-world things. I chilled at McCarren Park in Brooklyn and watched picnickers and gymnasts grow apple-red sunburns. I walked over the Williamsburg Bridge at sunset and ate bagels on my balcony, even enjoying the symphony of traffic on the street below. I traveled to New Jersey to see a friend.

There were several moments when I yearned to open my phone and I had to actively resist the impulse. But the payoff was worthwhile: The more I diverted my attention to my IRL surroundings, the more sounds and sights I noticed, and the more I relaxed into the natural chaos of New York City.

To properly detox, you have to try to rival your excitement for your phone or TV with other stimuli. Otherwise you might find yourself twitchy, bored, and restless. I felt like I was rewiring my dopamine centers the most while doing something else.

@jess.attridge #dopamine #adhd #dopaminedetox #selfcare #mindset #adhdeducation ♬ original sound - JESS ATTRIDGE

Overall, the detox definitely had positive results

The positive effects of detoxing became noticeable when I traveled to rural New Jersey. The combination of detaching from the internet and being out in the wilderness offered me a real chance to breathe. I felt like a tourist again when I returned to the city on Monday: the streets seemed fuller and more colorful. That brain-itch to keep constantly checking Instagram or texting friends back had almost dissipated!

I read Emma Cline's novel "The Guest" over the weekend, which was an interesting parallel to the experience. (The protagonist wanders aimlessly around Long Island with a broken phone, and her sense of reality is warped by alcohol and painkillers.) My experience was much more positive than hers, but there was a similar sensation of being adrift with no anchor.

A core contextualizing force of my life — the internet, social media, buzzy topics — was starting to dissolve.

Sadly, when I returned to work on Tuesday morning, it was like the detox had never happened. The first plunge back onto social media reignited both the rush and digital fatigue. Perhaps the experiment's effects would have been more impactful if I had extended it for a week or a month. Still, it had an effect on my daily life. I'm committed to firmer boundaries, like no phone use at the start and end of the day and making mealtimes no-screen zones.

Near the end of my detox, I started to wonder how it would be possible to continue working as an internet culture reporter if I were unplugged. I'd need to go into the real world to find tech and social media-related stories. I'd have to call my boss to talk through my pitches for the day, and type out articles on a typewriter or hand-write them on paper. It would be arduous and absurd.

(Kieran's editor's note: We acknowledge the sticky paradoxes of conducting this experiment as Kieran is a talented internet reporter. I'm confident cutting social media time, if he needs it, will not make him a less sharp, stealthy writer. However, approaching this job with old-school journalistic rigor could be an, uh, interesting experiment down the line.)

@doctormeli You’ll feel so much better once you remove those cheap dopamines with high quality ones #dopaminerush #dopaminedetox #naturopathicdoc #holistichealthandwellness #takeyourhealthintoyourownhands ♬ Original Sound - Unknown

As with everything, moderation is key. Some dopamine detox models are militantly restrictive and, ironically, can create more anxiety to be perfect, as if humans are machines that can be optimized. Also, online life is different for everyone, and there are certainly healthy ways to use screens without falling into doomscroll despair. One thing I noticed after spending so much time offline is that I actually found it easier to come up with internet culture story ideas.

Taking a break allowed me to see the tech landscape with fresh eyes. Ironically, I'd probably do my job better if I was online less.