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Dopamine Fasting Takes over TikTok and Reddit

It’s hardly controversial to claim that the internet can be addictive. Even the healthiest among us probably feel that we could spend a little less time scrolling through TikTok, browsing Instagram, or surfing Youtube. Popular documentaries like The Social Dilemma have shown us how social media platforms hijack our senses to keep us addicted, and some countries have even begun treating internet addiction as a clinical disorder.

So, it’s really no surprise that the so-called “Dopamine Fast” has become such a viral sensation.

Otherwise known as a “dopamine detox”, this mindfulness practice consists of abstaining from certain addictive behaviors (i.e. social media) to take a more thoughtful approach to our daily stimuli and rewire our brains to better control our impulses. Dopamine fasts take many shapes and forms — from simple time management practices, to all-out elimination of stimuli (including food), to 1-minute breaks in your TikTok page:

Though it is still going strong today, the dopamine fast trend has actually been around for several years. Notions of digital detox have existed for decades now, and the term “dopamine fasting” was first popularized by a viral 2019 Linkedin post from Dr. Cameron Sepah:

As Dr. Sepah notes in his title, his version of dopamine fasting first became a hot trend in Silicon Valley, where tech professionals used the strategy to improve their productivity. Google Trends data shows that search interest in dopamine detoxes and dopamine fasting was greatest in states with large tech economies in 2019.

Highest Search Interest: Dopamine Fasting (2019)

#1 California

#2 New York

#3 Colorado

But Dr. Sepah’s post spawned a more public interest in dopamine fasting, resulting in a peak in worldwide search interest in January 2020:

That public interest also spread far beyond the tech communities of California and New York to become a nationwide phenomenon in the US. Even in 2022, search interest for “Dopamine Fasting” remains high in many disparate parts of the United States.

As the profile of dopamine fasting has grown, though, so have the skeptics. It turns out that “dopamine” fasting is a bit of a misnomer. You can’t fast from a naturally occurring brain chemical, nor is dopamine really the most important element of the fast. In fact, reducing access to harmful and addictive stimuli doesn’t actually decrease dopamine in the brain, though some people have taken dopamine fasting to unhealthy extremes as a result of this misconception.

Even if they are a bit misunderstood, dopamine detoxes remain a popular activity in self-help and productivity circles online. People who want to get more out of their lives and conquer their bad habits are unplugging, decompressing, and abstaining from addictive social media stimuli.

Our culture AI findings reflect that.

Detoxers are loyal and exceedingly positive about their strategy. Many report strong results from their fasting efforts:

Even though dopamine fasting has a positive reputation, it’s not always an easy undertaking. Fasters weren’t afraid to air out their struggles on Reddit.

The difficulty that dopamine fasting poses is reflected in our Culture AI’s emotional findings on Reddit posts. Namely, sadness was the number one emotion:

Sadness is so relevant to conversations about dopamine fasting because people were looking for support through the more difficult parts of the process online. Nobody said that dopamine fasts were an easy transition, and many sought out tips and advice in supportive Reddit communities.

A lot of times, that advice came in the form of a simple clarification:

Helpful users clarified that dopamine fasts aren’t actually about eliminating dopamine — If that were true, dopamine fasters would avoid all social interaction and pleasure of any kind. Instead, dopamine detoxes are about leading a healthier lifestyle, and helping your brain get pleasure from less addictive behaviors.

It is in this same line of thinking that dopamine fasting has come to take over TikTok. Rather than recommending the removal of all pleasure or strenuous, long-term dopamine fasts, users on the short-form video app suggest taking a moment out of your day to be mindful of your viewing habits.

Oftentimes, this reminder comes in the form of a blank screen:

These “1-minute dopamine fasts” are all over TikTok. They act not just as a moment of peace in the midst of a crowded feed, but also serve as a check-in on our addictive habits. It’s not easy to sit through one of these videos, as many a commenter has noted:

Still, many other users see the benefit of finding these videos on their For You Page:

The challenging nature of these types of posts — and the positive impact they’ve had on some people’s TikTok experience — has led to immense popularity. The account titled “1minutedopaminefast” has nearly 110 thousand followers and multiple videos with millions of views, all from posting a blank gray screen for one minute every day.

Other accounts have followed suit, leading to a plethora of blank screen content filtering through TikTok feeds. Perhaps that is why the top five colors detected by our culture AI in dopamine detox searches were all variations of dark gray and black:

Still, many others have taken to TikTok to share their positive experiences with dopamine fasting and educate the public about what it actually is:

Whether on TikTok or Reddit, it’s clear that dopamine fasts and detoxes remain an important topic for many people looking to get more out of their lives. For a trend like dopamine fasting to exist for years now and still resonate with so many people, it must bring something positive to the table. Even if the meaning has been misconstrued, and even if the definition continues to change, dopamine detoxes still manage to spark discussions about how we interact with social media and how we navigate a digital world.

Write to anurag.banerjee@quilt.ai for more insights about your favorite brands and market trends.

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