Urban legend of digital drugs sweeps across Internet
MONTREAL - Are kids really, actually, getting high these days by listening to MP3s on their computers?
The phenomenon of so-called digital drugs -- or i-dosing -- has been spreading like wildfire around the Internet and the international press in recent weeks.
Apparently a set of headphones and a trippy digitally crafted song is all you need to achieve a state of imaginary ecstasy not unlike the one from consuming illicit drugs.
But here's the assessment from scientific experts: Pssst, kid, ever heard of the placebo effect?
It's apparently nothing more than an acoustic illusion and there is no scientific basis to prove the purported effects of i-dosing.
Binaural, or two-tone, technology -- created by playing a different tone in each ear to create the auditory illusion of a beat -- has been around since its discovery in 1839.
The claim is that the sounds serve to alter one's brain waves and, by extension, a person's mental state.
Not so, says Robert Zatorre.
"It doesn't really do anything to the brain," said Zatorre, professor of neuroscience at McGill University in Montreal.
"It does the same thing to the brain if you're standing looking at a pendulum swinging back and forth. You get stimulation from the right, then from the left. That's about it."
It's unclear just how widespread the phenomenon is, but video file-sharing site YouTube is absolutely teeming with videos of teens trying i-doses.
Some swear by its effects -- while countless others mock the so-called users of digital drugs as naive suckers.
Websites that sell the songs for as much as $20 a CD make extraordinary claims of what the songs will do, and the comments show that a song can bring about anything, from relaxation to concentration to hallucination, in different people.
"These are all contradictory stories: the same stimulus can't on one hand make you relaxed, on the other hand give you hallucinations, on the other hand help your concentration," Zatorre said.
So if a simple audio recording supposedly elicits this euphoric response, what exactly are people feeling?
Zatorre said some may be consuming actual drugs and attributing it to the music, while others might simply be getting fooled the old-fashioned way.
"What I think they're actually feeling is a psychological suggestion or a placebo effect," Zatorre said.
The Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse said it hadn't done any substantial research on the phenomenon, but one of its researchers was keeping an eye on it.
Still, stories about i-dosing have cropped up around the world in recent weeks, all of them leading back to the same Oklahoma City suburb -- Mustang -- where i-dosing first made headlines.
"Digital drugs at Mustang High School have experts warning of slippery slope," cautioned one Oklahoma news website.
Mustang, a town of 13,000, was where reports first surfaced of students who'd tried i-dosing. Some apparently wound up in the principal's office exhibiting symptoms like they'd consumed drugs.
When the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control took a closer look last year, that bunch of kids turned out to be "one or two" who had exhibited nothing more than a headache.
There hasn't been a single incident since September. But the school still sent a letter to parents because it suspected curious teens might flock to an easily available fad.
"We still do warn parents that this is out there, even though it doesn't really do anything," narcotics bureau spokesman Mark Woodward told The Canadian Press.
"If these kids are exploring getting a digital high -- that means they're probably already getting a high, and that should be your bigger red flag."
Woodward has been interviewed about the phenomenon by reporters from London, England to Bogota, Colombia. But Woodward thinks the trend is more likely to fizzle than become a fad.
Carmi Levy, an independent technology analyst based in London, Ont., says the trend is much like alternative medicine: "There are those who swear by it and claim it's absolutely true but it's not anything that's been accepted by mainstream culture."
Levy said the recent spate of coverage probably has more to do with youth jumping on a bandwagon with a hope that their i-dosing videos go viral.
"Beyond that, there isn't anything concrete here that this has any basis in science," Levy said.
"For all intents and purposes, it has all the hallmarks of an attempt for things to go viral."
Still, Levy and Woodward agree that the problem with i-dosing is that it could be a symptom of other behaviour.
"The issue isn't the act itself. It's that i-dosing tends to occur in the same circles as other more questionable activities, like drug use and pseudo-criminal activity," Levy said.
Adds Woodward: "We don't want to scare people and say it's a big problem. But we also don't want to downplay it because if it gets kids focusing on what web sites they're visiting, that's probably a good thing."