Why the Media Lies to You about Dopamine Fasting

How Mocking Silicon Valley Trumps Sharing Science

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In August 2019, I popularized dopamine fasting 2.0, when my evidence-based guide got over 100,000 views in <24 hours. Since then, the media has made it go viral worldwide, including news coverage on ABC TV and prominent papers in the US, UK, Australia, France, Japan, India, Turkey, & The Middle East. This has been a wonderful opportunity to teach people a behavioral therapy technique to manage impulsive behaviors (like excessive internet/gaming) by purposefully withdrawing from them for periods of time at the end of each day, week, quarter, and year. Unfortunately, some clickbait journalists and those with an agenda have used it as a way of mocking Silicon Valley and its men.

In my guide, I was careful to clarify what dopamine fasting IS NOT: an avoidance of dopamine, anything stimulating, or a silent meditation retreat in which you’re not allowed to do anything or talk to anyone. However, the confusion began when a tweet went viral about one guy who refused to talk to a woman due to being on a supposed dopamine fast, despite this being the exact opposite of what I recommend. My protocol specifically suggests socializing/bonding during a dopamine fast, and I have repeatedly told journalists that this is not what my clients and followers do in Silicon Valley.

This was a juicy opportunity for Nellie Bowles, a male-bashing activist writer for New York Times, who is notorious for writing “disgusting hit pieces” on other psychologist/professors, which have been described as “Dishonest, Malicious Crap”. She purposefully published a mocking article, incorrectly claiming that “a dopamine fast is basically a fast of everything”, and featured this guy and his two colleagues, in order to mock them as examples of Silicon Valley male excess. You can see this “tech bro” contempt in other clickbait or ‘listicle’ stories like “7 health trends Silicon Valley tech bros are obsessed with, from dopamine fasting to the keto diet” and this fine example of a high-integrity headline: “ARE THE TECH BROS WHO ‘DOPAMINE FAST’ FULL OF SHIT?”. Even the NYT Styles section slyly mock tweeted: “Men did it again” with a ridiculous profile of a man meditating.

Here’s the truth: female clients in my practice dopamine fast as well, and for good reason: women struggle with problematic/addictive behaviors just as much as men do. To paint it as a male tech bro thing is grossly inaccurate and reveals the journalists and the media’s own biases. Sadly, due to our current zeitgeist, it is now socially acceptable to publicly mock men and slander manhood with #ToxicMasculinity. I’m not alone, a journalist shared my conclusion on Twitter:

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This is tragic because when dopamine fasting is slandered as being a ridiculous behavior of Silicon Valley and male excess, it makes the public have a knee-jerk reaction to not want to try it. Most importantly, it overshadows the substance of dopamine fasting, which is the science. Dopamine Fasting is based on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the gold standard treatment for compulsive behaviors like internet addiction, which I train psychiatrists in as a Clinical Professor at UCSF Medical School.

Specifically, dopamine fasting uses the CBT techniques of ‘stimulus control’ to restrict use to specific time periods, and ‘exposure and response prevention’ to practice feeling our negative emotions without having to automatically suppress them. Clinicians & scientists in the field overwhelmingly stand behind CBT; in an review article on it’s use for internet addiction in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions, researchers state:

“In treating Internet addiction, abstinence models are not practical as computers have become such a salient part of our daily lives. Clinicians have generally agreed that moderated and controlled use of the Internet is most appropriate to treat the problem”

The irony of this whole scandal is that clickbait journalism is exactly the harmful stimulation that dopamine fasting 2.0 helps address, or what my UCSF colleague Dr. Robert Lustig calls the Hacking of the American Mind . The average American adult spends 11 hours a day interacting with media (up from 9.5 hours just 4 years ago). Approximately 4.5 hours of that is internet/smartphone/game related. There is nothing inherently wrong with media use, but as the Facebook study suggested, we may not be aware that spending hours per day may be negatively affecting our mood and well-being, and must certainly weigh the opportunity cost of not spending that time on self-care and health behaviors. The American Psychiatric Association, who publishes the DSM-V, the bible of psychiatric disorders, now recognizes internet gaming disorder as a condition when the behavior becomes truly problematic and impairs social/occupational functioning.

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Here’s the heart of the matter: the ubiquitousness of smartphones have essentially put an addictive device in nearly every American’s pocket. With the push of a button, we can can order junk food that fattens our waistlines, recreational substances that alter our minds, engage in social media that elicits outrage and depression, gamble our time and money away in games and casinos, overstimulate ourselves with pornography and other thrills, or go down ‘internet rabbit holes’ of reading that impair our sleep.

All of these behaviors can be done in moderation, but are dangerous temptations when you can’t get away from it and you’re stressed. Given Netflix’s CEO has publicly said that their “biggest competition is sleep” — we need to be vigilant about the increasing encroachment that the attention and stimulation economy is placing on our health. Given that smartphones aren’t going away anytime soon, we need to learn to lie with the devil in our pockets, and using CBT techniques like dopamine fasting 2.0 to restore order and health to our minds and bodies.

I call on the media and other publications to better scrutinize its journalists before allowing them to write biased hit pieces on Silicon Valley and its men. You have a responsibility to the general public to not mischaracterize evidence-based clinical practices as ‘fads’ without doing the hard work of investigative journalism. I am optimistic that you can do better next time.

In Health,

Dr. Cameron Sepah

Executive Psychologist & Venture Capitalist

Assistant Clinical Professor, UCSF School of Medicine

Written by

CEO, Maximus. Med School Professor. Executive Psychologist to CEOs & VCs.

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