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  • Stacy | Founder

Uncovering the Mental Health Crisis: The Impact of instant gratification and tech exploitation


Reflections on New York Tech Week
The Impact of instant gratification and tech exploitation

Are you tired of feeling constantly distracted, overwhelmed, lonely, and unsatisfied? You're not alone. In our fast-paced digital world, our brains are hijacked by instant gratification, leaving us vulnerable to anxiety, depression, and weakened social bonds. The exploitation of our natural reward systems by tech companies is causing significant harm to our mental health.


This blog documents my reflections on New York Tech Week.


Table of Contents


  1. Introduction

  2. Shift in Mental Health Awareness

  3. Mental Health and Instant Gratification: Exploitation of the Brain for Profit

  4. Dopamine Deficiency Misconception

  5. Risks of AI Companions

  6. Loss of Real-Life Services

  7. Regulation and Tech

  8. Balancing Brain Chemistry

  9. Need for Ethical Tech Development


Key Takeaways


  • Instant Gratification and Mental Health: The relentless pursuit of quick rewards undermines our ability to engage in meaningful, long-term activities like building relationships, which are crucial for releasing serotonin and oxytocin—key to our mental well-being.

  • Tech Industry Exploitation: Many tech companies prioritize profit over well-being, creating addictive products that exploit our brain's reward system. This practice can lead to significant psychological harm and long-term mental health issues.

  • Balancing Brain Chemistry: Instead of chasing dopamine-driven instant gratification, it's essential to focus on activities that enhance serotonin and oxytocin levels. This balance is vital for maintaining mental health, fostering genuine connections, and ensuring overall well-being.

Dearest, gentle reader....


Having returned from New York Tech Week, I have taken some time to reflect on some of the aspects of the week I found immensely uncomfortable.


Many of you know that I have spent the last 20 years working in mental health, the last 10 working with big corporates, sports teams, and C-Suite executives. Some of you will also know I have now added to my portfolio a relationship app.


But this isn’t about me. Nor am I selling you anything or promoting ANYTHING.


I simply ask that you make every attempt to read what I have to say, even if your brain urges you to move on. Please, read until the very end.


Shift in Mental Health Awareness


Over the past 5-6 years, we’ve seen a significant shift in Western culture towards reducing the stigma around mental health difficulties. We’ve become more comfortable with labels, diagnoses, and symptoms. Yet, after attending this major event, I was shocked and deeply concerned about our collective ignorance regarding the brain.


In fact, let me reframe that: it's the complete lack of care for the brain and mind. Moreover, I've concluded that there is a complete lack of desire to gain understanding—ignorance is bliss, as they say.


While we seem more comfortable with the reactive aspects of mental health (perhaps due to our intolerance of the human condition and failure to appreciate our inherent fallibility), we lack awareness of the mental harm we inflict on ourselves. This harm inevitably leads to poor mental health outcomes. Yet, we appear content to label ourselves with conditions as a way to explain the things that happen to us.

While I recognize that many things are beyond our control, there are fundamental issues causing us significant harm, and we are doing nothing about it. Furthermore, I can't help thinking we are all becoming too selfish to even care.


This unnerves me to the core. It makes me angry for future generations because our ignorance and indulgence are setting them up for failure. And crucially, and more importantly a life of chronic dissatisfaction.


However, the consumer is not the root of the problem, despite my frustration with those who turn a blind eye.


Mental Health and Instant Gratification: Exploitation of the Brain for Profit


What shocked me was the ultimate drive of many investors and founders to exploit the brain for profit. I hoped this was due to a lack of understanding. But when I heard comments like, "If you want VC investment, you need to build something that is VICE-related," or that investors are targeting influencers and gamers who have direct access to our children ("get them addicted early"), or the concern over the novelty effect of new products lasting only 30 days, I realized the problem is far deeper.


What will this look like in one or two years nevermind twenty or thirty!


When I expressed my concerns to a lawyer representing such products and investors (a lawyer who has children), he merely said, "That train has already left the station," and the onus is now on the consumer.


I'd almost like to agree, but have you ever told a heroin addict to quit? They might agree, but they'd also tell you quitting is nearly impossible, especially as addicts often lose all support in their quest for drugs.


Asking the consumer to quit... yeah, it's incredibly difficult, especially when the addiction is socially acceptable and omnipresent. Instead of shameful drug dealers, we now have retailers and consumer giants penetrating our senses every second, making avoidance nearly impossible.

What also seems apparent is the lack of insight into the harm being caused not just to consumers, but to product builders as well.


Consider the current reality: 'the novelty effect' (a term used by VCs to describe the excitement or dopamine hit from new products) lasts only 30 days. This means product builders must constantly innovate and spend more money to keep users engaged. It's exhausting and unsustainable, leading many products to die a slow or quick death.


Surely we should aim for consumer satisfaction and sustainability. If the brain required less novelty, there would be less need to constantly innovate, preserving profits.


Of course, the idea of halting innovation seems absurd in the investment world—why would we want to stop progress? Many might label me a 'doomsayer' for bringing this up, but I am far from pessimistic. I am an optimist about innovation and recognize the incredible advancements in technology and AI. However, I am also a realist and, above all, an ethical businesswoman committed to doing no harm.


Dopamine Deficiency Misconception


I've noticed a surge in companies claiming to address ADHD by targeting dopamine deficiencies. However, this may be more about our collective exhaustion of dopamine levels, leaving us feeling unsatisfied—much like addicts. This results in decreased motivation, focus, and a reduced sense of reward from completing tasks, where nothing ever feels good enough.


Instead of chasing more dopamine, we should focus on finding a balance by enhancing serotonin and oxytocin levels (more on these chemicals later), which can aid in improving our overall well-being and satisfaction.


Risks of AI Companions


Another concerning trend (one which was described by a VC as ‘exciting’ and I'm not surprised as this industry believe it or not is making billions of dollars on the back of lonely people) is the development of AI "boyfriends" and "girlfriends." These virtual partners may provide instant companionship and gratification but can further exacerbate our dependency on artificial dopamine hits. Relying on AI for emotional support can undermine our ability to form genuine, human relationships, leaving us more isolated and disconnected in the long run.


Moreover, despite such developers stating they are ‘curing’ the loneliness crisis, they are indeed facilitating it. If they wanted to cure loneliness, they would give people the skills to feel confident to connect in real life, not facilitate the deskilling of communication so much they cannot step out of the door. We need skill-building, not skill removal.

Why do we need such convenience? Why have we removed the checkout person for example? This person was often the only individual someone might speak to in a day! By eliminating these real-life interactions in the name of convenience, we are deskilling our communication abilities and making people fearful of speaking to one another. This removal of opportunities to engage in real-life conversations is contributing to the growing epidemic of loneliness and social isolation.


Furthermore, our heavy reliance on digital communication platforms like phones, WhatsApp, and social media is reducing our face-to-face interactions. While these technologies offer convenience, they deprive us of the nuanced, meaningful exchanges that come from in-person conversations. This shift not only weakens our social bonds but also makes us more apprehensive about engaging in real-world interactions. As a result, we are losing the essential skills needed for authentic human connection, further fueling the loneliness crisis.


Loss of Real-Life Services


We've lost many real-life services, such as those on the high street, because they can't keep up with the brain's demand for instant gratification. This rapid pace makes it impossible for them to turn around products quickly, effectively killing off these businesses. This shift deeply affects our senses, particularly our vision, and undermines our feelings of safety within our environments. Our environments are slowly becoming more and more unpleasant.


My question is this: Do we really need all this convenience? Or, are we merely observers of a hierarchy pack mentality where the leaders—a bunch of tech and finance 'guys'—will stop at nothing to reach the top, outrunning each other at any cost?

Reflecting on my conversation with the lawyer, I realized that at the pinnacle of success often stands an individual terrified of failure. These people sacrifice anything to avoid losing and have likely lost much in their pursuit of gain. For them, work is their identity, and everything else, even their children, comes second.


Do I wish I didn’t understand the potential harm being caused? Absolutely. But I do, and I cannot remain silent. I'm growing tired of the rhetoric, "You're right, but god it's depressing."


Regulation and Tech


In discussions about technology, regulation often comes up. Some argue that regulation stifles innovation, but I contend that we cannot responsibly build new technologies without understanding their consequences for consumers.


There are many who develop products solely for financial gain, indifferent to the means. Additionally, many developers of tech and AI products are unaware of the potential harm to users. This is beyond unreasonable. Would we tolerate such negligence in the physical health space without outrage? In the past, perhaps, but today we are far more health-conscious.


We now have many warnings around the physical harm we can cause ourselves, and let’s face it, if I told you to go and buy a product which would break your leg would you do it? Probably not. This situation resembles the historical negligence of the sugar and tobacco industries.


Balancing Brain Chemistry


Let me simplify this: The brain has a pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, responsible for the production of dopamine—the feel-good hormone. Dopamine is highly addictive, and its production is not self-regulated. The more we consume, the more we crave, rapidly raising our threshold for satisfaction and leaving us feeling unfulfilled with anything less. The world has exploited this design of our brain.


As our brains become accustomed to instant gratification, we lose the ability to tolerate discomfort or delays. This includes activities that take time to yield rewards, such as building meaningful relationships - which is critical to our wellbeing. It is no surprise that such activities are directly related to serotonin and oxytocin, the happiness chemicals.


The brain naturally seeks the quickest path to reward, which is why it often prefers instant gratification over long-term benefits. With so many quick fixes available today—from social media to on-demand entertainment—waiting for rewards has become increasingly difficult. However, neglecting the benefits of serotonin and oxytocin in favor of quick dopamine hits can lead to poor mental health outcomes over time. Without the balancing effects of these "happiness chemicals," we risk developing issues such as anxiety, depression, and weakened social bonds. It’s essential to consciously choose activities that promote serotonin and oxytocin to maintain healthy, balanced brain chemistry and overall well-being.


Need for Ethical Tech Development


We stand at a critical juncture. The integration of technology and AI into our daily lives has the potential to bring about unprecedented advancements and improve countless aspects of our existence. However, this progress should absolutely not come at the expense of our mental and emotional well-being.


It is imperative that we, as innovators, investors, and consumers, advocate for responsible technological development. We must demand transparency from tech companies, prioritize ethical considerations, and support regulations that protect users from harm. By doing so, we can ensure that technology serves to enhance our lives rather than undermine our humanity.


But this is not solely a call to action for tech companies—it's also a call to you, the consumer. We are allowing this exploitation to happen to us. As 95% unconscious beings, we must become deliberate in our efforts to enhance serotonin and oxytocin, the hormones of happiness and bonding, while reducing our dependency on dopamine-driven instant gratification. This shift requires awareness, effort, and a commitment to fostering genuine human connections and well-being.


We don't just owe it to ourselves to address these issues, but we owe it to the many others that come after us.

Practicing mindfulness, setting boundaries with technology, and prioritizing real-life interactions over digital ones are crucial steps. Yes, this will be challenging in a world designed to keep us hooked, but it is essential for our mental health and the quality of our relationships.


To conclude, our mental health has never been so far apart from physical health. Let us take action now. Educate yourself and others about the potential consequences of unchecked technological growth. Support ethical tech initiatives and companies that prioritize user well-being. Engage in conversations about the need for responsible innovation and hold tech giants accountable for their practices.


Together, we can create a future where technology enriches our lives without compromising our mental health and emotional connections. The time for change is now.


As for me, I continue to ponder why we are all here on the earth, I'm more certain than ever that if it is to destroy ourselves, then I am not here for it. We think we're better than animals, but animals don't try to destroy everything around them.


I therefore, leave you with this final thought: What's the point of all this hunting if there is no one to feed?


Til next time,


Stacy



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