The Addiction Superstition: Are Smartphones Really Like Heroin?

The headlines are ubiquitous. Cheese is actually as addictive as crack. Playing a video game for hours on end is like doing a line of coke. Smartphones are 'digital heroin' turning our kids into psychotic junkies.

Give me a break.

Let's concede at the outset that the claim being made here is superficially true: cheese is a very pleasurable food, video games can be very habit-forming, and Americans are definitely hooked on their smartphones in staggering numbers. All of these things can be habit-forming and have negative consequences for someone indulging too often.

But the superstition that they must therefore somehow be 'like cocaine' or 'like heroin' stems from a peculiar superstition about drugs rooted in Drug War propaganda encouraging people to believe that there is something 'special' about drugs that make them, like demons, intruders in the body that rob us of our self-control; they are uniquely terrible and we must fear them as agents of addiction. 

Now, it is certainly true that we should have a healthy fear of drugs, and of anything intensely pleasurable. But it is pleasure that is 'addictive,' not opiates, stimulants, or any other drug. The body only makes use of a limited number of pleasure chemicals -- primarily serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins -- and all of these are activated by food, sex, and drugs alike. What's addicting is dopamine, not any particular object or experience. So it's superficially true that our smartphone use can be 'just like digital heroin', but that's only because we need to be on our guard against anything highly pleasurable and habit-forming. This is why people get addicted to porn, to junk food, and to World of Warcraft: all mirror the habits of drug use. But the conclusion to draw here isn't that these things are 'like drugs', but that drugs are not special and are also like those things; that pleasurable activities and experiences are habit-forming and we ought to be on our guard against indulgent, compulsive, and mindless use of any of them.

The news will always be out to sensationalize, exaggerate, and scare. But if we are going to move beyond the propaganda of the Drug War, it means not only changing policy about drugs, but resisting fear-based propaganda like this. Because, hey -- tabloid trash can be as addicting as heroin.

Alex Knepper