The New Gateway Drug


What if cell phones are the new gateway drug?

Before a human being develops a substance use disorder, they’ve often already engaged in one or several habitual behavior patterns that lead to addictive traits. For example, activities such as video games, ritualistic athletic exercise and academic perfection include this trait.

The human brain is constantly seeking efficient solutions, and when we’re stressed a very efficient, albeit primitive, strategy is avoidance. Attempting to control or regulate our internal life by engaging in behaviors with external stimuli sufficient enough to quiet our internal strife is as old as human life on this planet. Avoidance itself isn’t inherently bad, until we become rigidly one dimensional, our daily functioning becomes impaired and/or we start to experience a level of distress, which in itself propels us to pursue more avoidance. It’s as though we’re in engaged in a form of psychological autoimmune disorder; the very thing which was meant to bring us regulation becomes the primary source of dysregulation.

So, what does this all have to do with a new gateway drug?

Last month my colleague and good friend Ryan Hocking wrote about cell phones and peripherally attached cell phone use to a form of avoidance. I want to strengthen that connection and make the claim that it is more than plausible to consider our reliance on mobile devices as behavior that puts ALL of us more at risk for developing a substance use disorder.

That, in fact, we should strongly consider our HABITUAL use of cell phones as a new gateway drug.

How cell phones work as a gateway drug?

Let’s start by connecting cell phone use with opioids. Our brain produces its own opioids that play a primary role a variety of functions. One function we want to focus on is pleasure, specifically pleasure derived from social interaction. Opioids are implicated in just about every social experience we have; bonding, sex, nurturing, playing, attachment. All of these experiences and the pleasure they bring, are reflections of opioid activity in our brain. For example:

  • When a boy is involuntarily separated from his mother, the rush of safety and relief he feels upon their reunification is an opioid release in the brain.
  • When we’re soothed in the arms of a loved one we experience a rush of opioid release in the brain.
  • When an athlete feels a quiet, relaxed confidence in her ability, she experiences opioid release in the brain.
  • The experience of an orgasm in both men and women is organized by opioids.

What’s central is that a delicate balance of opioid release needs to be maintained in order to have these experiences. If we have too much opioid activity we become disinterested in human connection; hence the heroin addict whose use is essentially an isolative experience, getting high and “nodding out.” Alternatively, if we have insufficient opioid activity we experience intense fear and panic. Heroin addicts going through withdrawal experience panic attacks (and often they will report suffering from panic attacks prior to developing an addiction). A young mammal that is separated from its caretaker undergoes intense fear because opioid activity is significantly dampened in an effort to motivate the offspring to “find” its mother. Think about one of oldest forms of psychological torture still used in our penitentiary system— isolation.

Here’s the thing; those areas of our brain governing opioid release are very primitive, and so they don’t necessarily differentiate between the experience of interaction with objects or interaction with humans. This becomes especially true when we’re considering an object that can provide some form of immediate reward (e.g. neat sounds, shiny lights, etc.) because now we’re involving another area of our brain that is constantly seeking rewarding stimuli in our environment. From here, it’s not a big leap to start seeing how we’re very likely impacting the release of opioids in our brain by HABITUAL use of cell phones.

are cell phones the new gateway drug?

That delicate balance between too-much and too-little opioid release in the brain was developed over millions of years on this planet; there are laws of social etiquette and intimacy that were grown and pruned through generation after generation of our species. In about a decade we are completely undermining those laws and rewriting new ones that require interaction with an object, interaction that directly competes, and in many cases even supplants, face-to-face interaction. There are very primitive structures in our brain that place a huge value on scanning the human face to assess basic things such as safety. It’s hard to imagine how this is not impacting our brain. The question should be not “if” our brain is being rewired but rather “how” comprehensive the change in our brains is.

How cell phone addictions mirror the opioid epidemic?

Let’s also consider some anecdotal evidence, the rise of smart phones has mirrored the opioid epidemic. In 2007, the first iPhone was released. At this point we were smack in the middle of the opioid/prescription pill crisis, and 4 years later heroin use skyrocketed. Yes, of course there were several, now well-documented, factors at work that promoted the heroin epidemic; poor prescribing practices, aggressive marketing campaigns by big pharma, increased cost for prescription medications, etc. However, it’s noteworthy to consider that as we’ve become more comfortable interacting with our phones than face to face with each other, we are in fact avoiding and priming our brain for a seemingly efficient solution. Perhaps though, the most convincing evidence is experiential…

Turn your cell phone off right now.

How does your brain relate to that statement? What reasons does it come up with as to why that would be a bad idea? How strong is your reaction to the idea of going without your phone right now? How about for the next two hours? How about for the rest of the day today? Does that frighten you? Is it even a possibility in your mind? Say hello to the new gateway drug, and it’s already got you hooked.

By: Andy Buccaro, LCSW, LADC

Excerpts taken from: Affective Neuroscience by Jaak Panksepp.