2020’s: The War on Digital Drugs (Instant Gratification)

I grew up in Plano, Texas. Plano is a well-known suburban community outside of Dallas, regularly receiving national recognition for its “high standard of living”. However, those that have been a part of the Dallas community for several decades likely associate Plano with something a little different.

Chiva, better known as Black Tar Heroin.

In the mid to late 1990’s, Plano reached the national stage for a black tar heroin epidemic that entranced wealthy high-school students. Unfortunately, it reached national news status because of the overwhelming number of overdose-related deaths, and the immense number of resulting incarcerations. It was dubbed “The Texas Heroin massacre” by Rolling Stone. But what if there had been no casualties? Would Plano have made headline news? Would the addiction and long-term impacts be enough for us to react the same way?


We are currently intensifying a much larger drug epidemic that has masked its identity to perfection. Instant digital gratification, or digital heroin. Leading technology companies have learned how to drip-feed digital heroin while avoiding the stigma and consequences of being viewed as drug dealers. I recognize you likely just concluded that I am a hyperbolic crazy person for comparing black tar heroin to instant gratification, but hear me out.

“The instantaneous nature of the euphoria is arguably as important as the euphoria itself.”

Heroin, like most narcotics, is highly addictive because of the instantaneous surge of pleasure and euphoria one receives. Let’s be honest, not many people would use drugs if it took days to feel the desired elation. The instantaneous nature of the euphoria is arguably as important as the euphoria itself. Digital heroin is no different. Each time we interact with the digital platforms we crave; we ignite the same chemical reaction by way of thousands of micro-doses with reduced intensity. Like the flutes in Mario Brothers 3, we are shortcutting the brain’s reward system by flooding the nucleus accumbens with dopamine. With every order, video, picture, text message, or fantasy football score update, the hippocampus imprints memories of the swift sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to the stimuli.

Ok, Ben, just because they share a similar trait of instantaneous gratification does not mean they belong in the same club, surely? After all, tens of thousands of people die from heroin overdose each year. It creates an addiction so strong it is nearly impossible to break. Even attempting to do so results in agonizing withdrawal symptoms. How can instant digital gratification compare?

I concede that the short-term effects of heroin outweigh those of its digital cousin. Unfortunately, that is precisely the problem. Because the short-term effects are far less noticeable and exorbitant, it is easy for digital heroin dealers to fly under the radar. They will never be considered dealers if their product is not considered a drug. And if their product is administered with great precision in a minimally invasive high-volume fashion, then the primary effects will be sequestered to the long-term, minimizing the likelihood of reaching drug status.

Nobody knows this better than the curators themselves. Sean Parker, the founding President of Facebook, admitted that the social network is designed to actively manipulate users’ brain chemistry in order to keep them coming back again and again. He admitted to exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology by ensuring each feature was designed to induce “dopamine hits”. Each big tech company employs an army of engineers whose goal is simply to get you to spend more time on their platform. Consider infinite scrolling, auto-plays, push notifications, likes, full-season releases, scarcity, and curated content. Have you ever considered how similar the “pull to refresh” action is to “pulling the lever” on a slot machine? In 2018, Tim Cook summarized it best when he said, “our own information is being weaponized against us with military efficiency”.

Does this not sound precisely like the way you would design and describe a drug?

We can no longer afford to view our addiction to instant gratification via digital heroin as inconsequential euphoria. Like any drug, there are significant long-term effects including increased suicide, bullying, anxiety, introversion, depression, insomnia, and loss of memory. There are distinct addiction and withdrawal symptoms. There is clear scientific evidence of the material changes in the regions of the brain that control emotions, attention and decision making. This is leading to an unprecedented decline in our mental health.

The 2020s is an incredibly important decade. We will likely win or lose the war on digital drugs. There will come a point where our addiction will be embedded (quite literally) within us and the long-term consequences irreversible. But winning is easier than one might think. Unlike heroin addiction, we do not need another drug to help us through withdrawals. In fact, we don’t even have to quit this drug cold turkey. We simply need to reduce and repurpose our digital addiction. It starts with recognizing and accepting our junkie habits, educating ourselves, and implementing dependency reduction techniques.

This is a war we can win. We just need to recognize we are in one.

Ben Hubbard