We are wired to embark on intellectual journeys of curiosity.
Information-seeking is a distinctly human trait, encouraged by neurochemical reactions. When our curiosity is piqued, the sense of discovery releases hits of dopamine in the brain, triggering the reward system, which in turn encourages us to explore a topic, knowledge, or question even further.
Curiosity propels the human race forward — evolutionarily, scientifically, and culturally. Without our innate drive to explore ideas and ask interesting questions, our ancestors never would have stepped down from the trees.
But can we have too much of a good thing? What happens when our sense of curiosity becomes hijacked by the unending stream of media from the screens in our pockets and on our desks?
The mental health effects of increased screen time
Lately, I’ve become curious about a number of surveys that have come out in the last few years, connecting increased screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic with such mental health effects as anxiety and depression.
A 2021 study in Canada followed 2,026 children aged 2 to 18 years. Researchers tracked time spent each day watching television and other media, playing video games, learning electronically, and video chatting. Parents were asked to complete repeated questionnaires throughout the study, detailing the children’s behavior and mental health.
In younger children, higher levels of screen time were associated with higher levels of behavioral problems; In older children, higher levels of screen time were associated with increased reports of anxiety, depression, inattention, and other negative mental health effects.
Canadian children aren’t the only ones affected by the increase in screen time during the pandemic. A 2020 survey of Chinese students also found that increased screen time due to COVID-19 was associated with depressive symptoms, as did a 2021 study of young adults by researchers at the Saint James School of Medicine in Saint Vincent.
For many during the pandemic, screens helped us stay connected to our communities. In a review of the existing literature, researchers pointed out that people who reported some social media usage during the pandemic tended to be happier than those who reported none. But those who spent excessive amounts of time online reported negative effects on their mental health.
Curiously, screen activity also releases dopamine and gives us instant rewards. For people of all ages, having a device at hand all day can be and feel like having an endless supply of cheap candy a hand’s reach away.
If after texting, emailing, Slacking, and scrolling for three hours straight, you feel as if you have a sugar crash, you can sense the connection.
Some psychologists speculate that when the human brain releases excess amounts of dopamine without sufficient time for the brain to refresh and reboot, then this chronic screen time can lead to increased chances of depression and anxiety.
How can we walk the fine line between the positive and negative effects of screens? Perhaps we can find an answer again in the science of curiosity.
Harnessing our curiosity
The internet holds an incredible treasure trove of ways to indulge our curiosity. We can look up the answers to questions instantly on our phones and follow endless trails of research that previously would have required us to seek out rare books or distant experts.
But our brains don’t distinguish between the dopamine hits we get when deliberately following a curious thread and those we get from randomly scrolling through a social media feed.
Whether we’re stumbling across cat videos or an avalanche of negative headlines, our curiosity — and dopamine — is what makes it so hard to look away from the screen.
And in our always-on world, whether we’re caught in a cycle of doomscrolling through the news or simply glued to our phones in a way to keep ourselves constantly entertained, our brains are receiving constant hits of dopamine without any respite. We have no time to reboot, to process what we’ve learned.
Our curiosity becomes dispersed, leading to mental exhaustion rather than discovery. The good news is that we can train ourselves to harness our curiosity and direct it once again.
- Identify when you’re going down the rabbit hole of digital distraction. Are you consciously seeking out information? Or are you scrolling just to scroll?
- Be aware of your own symptoms of mental exhaustion and fatigue. How do you feel in body and mind when you spend too much time behind a screen?
- Reflect on which topics tend to hijack your sense of curiosity most, so you can be particularly aware when they arise. Are there certain current events that elicit a stronger reaction than others?
- Guide your curiosity. Rather than getting caught in a cycle of doomscrolling, can you intentionally seek out articles that will help you get greater context and take action?
We live in a world where information is always at our fingertips, and these days much of it is distressing. But by harnessing your curiosity, you can step out of the cycle and be a healthier, more proactive citizen.