John Cowan - Doing it for the Dopamine

Publish Date
Thursday, 22 March 2018, 10:16AM
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

By John Cowan

Parents often fret how they can budge their kids off video games and their phones. Factor in the dopamine. 

Dopamine is a natural brain chemical. If I solve a problem,  I get a little squirt of dopamine in my brain and I feel good. When I finish a job: more dopamine, I feel good; if I go for a bike ride, my body might ache but I get a shot of dopamine in my brain, and I feel good. We like dopamine, and so we do the things that release dopamine: it’s a reward system, it’s natural  and it’s often the reason we do things that are hard and worthwhile – that little squirt of dopamine in our brain says, “Well done!”

When people say they are addicted to the gym or work or music – it’s actually dopamine they are hooked on, natural highs from doing good things (and, occasionally, bad things!).   Drugs can hijack the system – amphetamines and nicotine and most ‘feel good’ drugs increase dopamine.  And one of the biggest artificial sources of dopamine? Our phones, tablets, computers and TV screens. Thousands of brilliant software and game designers are working as hard as they can to make them totally immersive, stimulating and engaging.

When you yell at your kids, “Shut that game down! Turn off the TV. Turn that noise down! Get off Instagram!” we are killing their dopamine fix and they will actually, literally feel bad!   You have to set and enforce your limits, but add in some sympathy and understanding.

My tip: give them more dopamine but from better sources!  Friendships,  busyness, sport, clubs, challenges, running, fun, achieving goals, jokes, sailing, games – all the good healthy  things proven to make for a healthy life – they all deliver dopamine. So add more and more to your child’s life but don’t expect the natural highs from a life lived well to give your the same immediate , intense, addictive rush that a  video game can deliver  – it would be like someone saying, “Leave that donut – you’ll find this salad is much more enjoyable”. They will in time, but while you’re weaning them over – helping them discover the buzz from these new habits and patterns – they will need another way to feel good. The best substitute: your encouragement, smiles, affection and approval. I’m not sure, but that loving attention probably releases dopamine as well. And it is one of the few things powerful enough to make kids feel better than an X-box. 

About John

John has been with The Parenting Place ( for seventeen years as their senior writer and presenter.  He had various roles working with youth and families prior to that but actually started his working life as a scientist in neurophysiology at Auckland Hospital.  As well as writing and speaking, John is frequently on radio and television.

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