The conversation over coffee stopped dead when the cell phone on the table pinged with an incoming text message. My friend dived for the phone with a smile of apology. She couldn't not grab the phone. "It's like a drug," she shrugged.
Close, but not quite. Text messages -- especially those sexy, flirtatious, seductive ones -- aren't like a drug. They are a drug.
Research has shown that a visual or audio cue signaling the arrival of a text message, email or Facebook status update sets off the same synaptic response as pulling the lever on a slot machine. It provokes the same squirt of dopamine setting up the same anticipatory high. Think Pavlov's dog salivating when the bell signals an incoming plate of food, only at an even more reptilian level.
If you're lobbing text messages back and forth with a romantic interest, you don't even need to enclose a photo of your penis (thank you, Anthony Weiner and Brett Favre, for those indelible images) to trigger an addictive response. The messages alone are calcifying the pleasure-reward system with every ping and pop, sending signals over the same neural network over and over and over again until the pathway is locked and loaded.
And that, scientists tell us, is what addiction looks like at the biological level. You can get your shot of dopamine from pulling the slot machine handle or you can get it from snorting cocaine: Pick your poison. Gambling may be the legal choice and it probably kills you more slowly, but in a way it's more insidiously addictive. Anticipation is always more seductive than reality. Coffee never tastes as good as it smells.
So here's my concern for the Youth of America. Yeah, yeah, I know we adults are always worried about some scary new sexuality among people whose bodies are hotter than ours. But this isn't about sexting or hook-ups or any of the other X- or at least PG-13-rated pastimes the American adolescent conducts via electronic communication. This is about the electronic communication itself. The average teen texts thousands, even tens of thousands of times a month. That's a massive amount of neural traffic in that anticipation-response area of the brain. Despite recent researchindicating that teens aren't sexting as previously thought, I worry that they're doing it enough to take their malleable young brains, already subjected to everything from Red Bull to Ritalin, and cut some very dangerous grooves in them.
Not that sext addiction is exclusive to teens -- remember my friend at the coffee shop? If you already suffer from what I like to call Affection Deficit Disorder -- and I do mean suffer, as in your head pounds when you see His car or you get nauseous when you think about Her with another guy -- try an iHoliday. Disconnect text messaging for a week. Take the Facebook app off the smart phone for 30 days. Disable the email alert feature. See what happens. What's the worst possible outcome? You'll be 30 minutes behind the news curve if yet another politician or star athlete sends a picture of his equipment through the digital ether. You'll live. Probably better than you did before.