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Delaying Gratification and Dopamine

When we think of our current societal view on raising children, we have a conundrum. We want our children to experience the world as it is progressing through a technological viewpoint, a growth mentality.

What does that mean? When technology enters the learning process, we progress at log rates. We can process more information and incorporate it into our memory. For a simple example, let's look back in time. When I was in school, I had to go to the library and search through the libraries archaic dewey decimal system to find a book to reference for information for a project or assignment. Time wasting to say the least compared to the internet age. It took forever to accumulate old data that was in a book. No real time action.

What about technology for fun? This is the place where we get into trouble. Playing video games, snap chat, instagram videos, streaming movies are becoming a major concern for our youth. I am seeing 1-2 year olds in my office playing and watching on screens during entire visits. This is concerning on many levels. Parents often say that this is an anomaly because it is just during office visit time to keep the child satisfied and quiet. What is the signal that we are giving our child here? What is actually happening?

The child is gaining a level of neurobehavioral candy called dopamine that will encourage more candy hits to satiate the brains desire over time. They are grooving in negative neural pathways that will haunt their future. Let's dive a little deeper here.

When someone consumes video content, they have to make start/stop decisions regarding how much to watch and when to stop or switch to another video. This appears to depend on a brain network that uses orientation to a stimulus (striatum), arousal (anterior cingulate), and executive function (prefrontal cortex). 17% of those between 18 and 25 years of age who have maturing prefrontal cortices spent more than 20 hours a week watching videos in 2020. (Lin et. al. 2022) As the content becomes less dopamine stimulating, the person will switch to another media content to reestablish the increased dopamine signal. It gets even worse with targeted media like Tik Tok and instagram. And let us be very clear, they are being targeted. This is where we see the activation of the default mode network (DMN) which is the daydreaming state. (Su et. al. 2022) The ability to be oriented to the outside world is lost or suspended. Think of the DMN as the activity that runs the brain all the time when we are not actively thinking in a goal directed way or on task.

In effect, we are teaching our youth to seek immediate gratification, to zone out and to be slothful. This is a major flaw in a societies health span.

The other issue with the risks of neurobehavioral dopamine candy is the single nucleotide polymorphisms for dopamine enzyme or receptor activity and methylation genes like COMT. These common genetic variants can make one susceptible to more screen addiction behavior as well as mental health issues. (Han et. al. 2007)

So..... What does this have to do with delaying gratification? The answer is simple. When we delay gratification through the removal of or delayed exposure to instant dopamine based happiness as screens, video games, purchases that your child wants now or other signals to dopamine, they will learn to be ok without the constancy of its perceived need. In other words, they can find neurological balance. They will form newer neuronal pathways that are not as dedicated to the dopamine search.

This process is best begun at the youngest ages so as to groove in the pathways before the teenage prefrontal cortex goes sideways. The more mature that you are mentally the more capable you will be to delay gratification through self thought and action. However, starting this process through effective limit setting and boundaries as a parent will set this rhythm in motion. Once the teenage hormonal state and brain state kicks in, we need to be keenly aware that the immaturity of their mind is causing them to have a focus on dopamine and self rapid gratification. We need to hold space and be patient during this time as they mature. Hard thing to do!

The to do:

1) Do not give your children access to videos and phones under 2 years of age. This is a major no no.

2) Let your kids learn to self play, imagine, work out conflict as they stretch their emotional and growth oriented brains.

3) Lead by example. Do not be a screen parent!

4) Have your children wait 24 to 48 hours before buying anything in an effort to see if the desire is real or a dopamine reaction. For bigger expensive purchases, increase the time of wait.

5) Keep smart phones out of your kids hands until 14 years of age. A flip phone or basic stripped down (i.e. no social media/streaming) smartphone is best.

Hard but necessary!

Dr. M

Waters Guardian

Lin Front Behav Neurosci

Su NeuroIma

Science Direct

Han j Addiction Medicine