Swapping Addictions


I love my job – I’m a high school teacher.  My students are mature enough that I can share the world with them, in grown up language, and they generally understand.  I have an opportunity to change perception, influence behavior, and motivate my students to be that next, informed generation that could “save the world.”

When I write exams and practice problems, I use as many real examples as I can come up with, with paraphrased research to back it up.  There’s always a moral or a larger message – this is an attempt to get the kids to think about something in their worlds, and why it is important or scary.  I also strongly urge my students to make their own informed opinions, which certainly do not always jive with mine.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an exam about the potential danger of synthetic food dyes and other hormone-like molecules that we regularly ingest, that the government says are “safe in very small quantities.”  Around Halloween in 1950, a ton of kids got very sick with diarrhea and welting rashes, after eating candy containing one of these dyes.  “Candy” and “small quantities” don’t really go together on this crazy holiday, so if there was any risk with this dye, this was the time it would be realized.  With some of my students eating dye-laden foods at every meal and snack, every day, I wanted them to be aware of potential issues, even if the government wasn’t coming along to say something was hazardous.  It was a biochemistry quiz, so students theorized how some of these molecules, drawn out for them, could act in a cell, based on what they already knew about other molecules that are used in and around our cells.

 The exam I am currently working on has to do with addiction.  This year’s computer science students seem more addicted than ever, in my many years of teaching that subject.  They are addicted to light, I believe.  Coincidentally, this coming week is Red-Ribbon Week, a national recognition of a fallen American officer, Enrique Camarena, who died while investigating illegal drug cartels in Mexico.  Local grade schools are particularly visible with celebrating this week, even if students don’t have a solid understanding about what illegal drugs are (which a little part of me doesn’t mind at all).

Computers and most digital devices emit light through tons of light emitting diodes (LEDs) that flicker constantly and at an almost imperceptibly rapid rate.  Your eyes respond to the light, cause proteins to fold, hormones to be released, nerves to change their shapes, salts to move… and your brain fills in missing light on the screen, when the LEDs are off (between flickers), so you perceive a continuous picture.  That’s a lot of work!  If you are doing more while that computer is on, say reading for enjoyment, playing a game, writing an e-mail, or looking at pictures, additional sensory responses are happening, and more physiological changes are taking place.  As we sense more, we do more, and if we enjoy what we are doing, our neural circuitry has potential to change, such that we remember what was “good for us” and are motivated to do it again.

This is largely how learning works.  If you have ever met someone who is not very good at a task they would have practiced before, they are likely someone who can recall some negative experience or emotion associated with it.  I meet people all of the time that are math-phobic, and they can trace this back to an adult that scolded them, experiences of humiliation, or other negative events.  I had my own string of negative experiences, trying to learn Algebra as a pre-teen, but that was overcome in about 6 months time, and now I love and excel at math, and consequently love to teach and use it.

Dopamine is a hormone that drives the body to want more.  It’s associated with all sorts of addictions.  You could say that the body is working to become addicted to anything that is good for it… but dopamine doesn’t know anything about a code of ethics, and feedback to it isn’t necessarily based on long-term body-wise impact.

Dopamine is a “happy” hormone, which raises one’s mood, boosts confidence, and even wakes us up a bit.  If a certain song seemed to do that, then why not play that song on your CD alarm clock, to more easily get up in the morning?  That’s what I’ve done – I’ve got my favorite, Duran Duran’s “Girls On Film” as my alarm; just hearing the first 5 seconds of cameras and Roger Taylor’s drumming wakes me up and merrily sends me on my way.  I’ve been doing that every day for about 10 years.  If a person popped a pill that they found enjoyable – say an amphetamine – the drug itself would have physiological effects, but dopamine is also there, helping you learn what feels good, and neurochemically urging you to do it again.  The same is true of computers.  Over the last 15 years or so, computers have wired the world so we can chit-chat, publish writing and graphics more easily, game, and more.  My students intuitively know what computers can do for them – as soon as they log in, I can imagine dopamine being released – and them feeling a little happier, a bit more confident, and waking up a bit more. 

No, there is no gaming in my classroom – just the laborious writing of games.  There are no instant messages, no fancy graphics, no songs or videos … but the kids are undeniably drawn to their screens.  Even when there is nothing on them but a graphic associated with the lab, they are sucked in.  I can lock the computers remotely, and have to daily, because the kids are such addicts for those LEDs in their monitors.  If I do not, they don’t look at me, don’t hear the lesson.  Apparently I have no “Mrs. Frazier” addicts (and I’m glad – this would be creepy).

It’s interesting to meet students whose addiction to something else far surpasses that to technology.  I am finding less and less of them.  Now, I should point out that technology is great – you can do a lot, get a lot… but from a whole-body health perspective, computers can be dangerous.  When we fracture our interpersonal relationships into digital events or by digital events, we deprioritize them.  Technology can distance ourselves from others, even if we spend much of our time chatting, calling, texting, or emailing.

Two students, Malcolm and Eric, have been working with me for two years on biking.  They started up a biking club, with rides after school every week and meetings at lunch once a month.  At any meeting, their energy and excitement is contagious, and if members aren’t hooked by that, the routes they choose for rides are exhilarating, with plenty of whoopties and sweeping hills to please novices and competitors alike.  Max and I manned our “pacing car” on the 90-minute ride last Friday.  A new member joined, and I could see his enthusiasm matched that of Malcolm and Eric.  Sweeping hills around the golf course – big smiles.  Laborious climb to the top of the only big hill – laughs.  For these guys (and the girl, Emma, who typically rides as well), they have an addiction to this – to exertion, the wind in their hair, the challenge of a hill, the zip forward that momentum provides.  They get as much stimulation as using a digital device, but here, their whole bodies are engaged, and they are building strength not only in their neural circuitry, but in their muscles.

Stroller Hikes might not offer a rigorous exercise routine, but in the simplicity of a hike, scoot, or bike-a-hike, there is no lack of stimulation.  My kids love technology – movies, games, music.  But when we are outside, they never ask for it.  Who needs stimulation from a screen when there is plenty of light and color in the wild?  Nature has its own soundtrack, made ever more exciting because you never know what is next.  It’s not scripted, but it can be equally addicting, if you choose to make outside time, exercise time, and family time a habit.  We are addicts of the wild.

– Debbie (Founder and President, Stroller Hikes), Max (7), Holly (3), and Andrew

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