Pssst, Hey Kid. . . the First One’s Free

by Whatsblem the Pro

They even have digital Ex-Lax -- IMAGE: Oda-Dik

They even have digital Ex-Lax — IMAGE: Oda-Dik

Los Angeles television station KTLA ran a news item this week giving parents everywhere something new to worry about: that their children might be getting blitzed out of their young minds. . . on digital drugs.

“From online predators to simply too much screen time, we’ve all heard about the potential dangers of the Internet and our children. . . but have you heard of something called ‘i-dosing?’ Parents warn it’s an alarming new trend where kids could be using their iPads and iPods to get intoxicated. They’re called digital drugs. They’re free — accessible — and legal. But do these beats alter the brain the same way street drugs do?”

Digital technonarcotics? It sounds like something straight out of science fiction, or the weirder elements at Burning Man. . . even if – especially if – it’s just a silly prank.

KTLA isn’t the first TV newsroom to trot this one out, and surely won’t be the last. Back in July of 2010, Wired ran a write-up about Oklahoma’s City’s Channel 9 News reporting the same story, warning parents that “digital drugs” – a euphemistic name for something science calls “binaural beats” – could be a gateway to doing real drugs. The Daily Mail, second-most popular newspaper in the United Kingdom, also picked up the story.

“Kids are going to flock to these [web] sites just to see what it is about and it can lead them to other places,” said Mark Woodward, who Channel 9 identified as a spokesman for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. Citing the use of digital drugs as an indication of willingness to experiment with real narcotics, Woodward was clearly sounding an alarm.

“So that’s why we want parents to be aware of what sites their kids are visiting and not just dismiss this as something harmless on the computer,” he elaborated. “If you want to reach these kids, save these kids and keep these kids safe, parents have to be aware. They’ve got to take action.”

Gosh, Mr. Woodward! That sounds serious!

Not surprisingly, both KTLA’s coverage and the Channel 9 piece were a bit on the lurid side. The Channel 9 reporter actually claimed that “websites are luring kids with free downloads” in an attempt to equate downloading an mp3 file with a visit from that perennial bugaboo of straitlaced parents everywhere, the schoolyard drug dealer who tells kids that the first one is free. Goddamn the pusher man!

The less conservative among us who have actually had some experience with recreational drugs may be tempted to speculate that kids who try to get wasted by wearing headphones are probably already partying it up to some extent, and are simply trying to score their drugs for free. Regardless, it seems prudent to ignore the alarmist tone and the dark warnings about so-called “gateway drugs,” and take all this with a large grain of salt and tongue pressed firmly into cheek. Still, one has to wonder. . . is there any truth at all to any of this talk about getting high on mp3 files?

If you’re willing to abandon all skepticism and believe whatever you’re told by J. Random Internetperson, then the sheer number of web sites touting binaural beats and YouTube videos of teenagers allegedly exhibiting dramatic reactions to them might make a true believer out of you. If, however, you prefer actual science as an information source over the dark and vast wellsprings of mis- and disinformation that make up the bulk of the Internet, you might be disappointed; as shocking as it sounds, people on the Internet sometimes do say things that are not true. Some of them believe what they’re saying; some do it just for fun; some are trying to sell you something.

So what is a binaural beat?

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove

Heinrich Wilhelm Dove

Back in 1839, a German scientist by the name of Heinrich Wilhelm Dove discovered that if you play a tone into your left ear at a particular frequency, and play a similar tone into your right ear at a slightly different frequency, the brain plays a little trick on itself, and you hear a beat where no beat exists, at a frequency that is the difference between what your left ear hears and what your right ear hears. The two tones must be below 1,000 Hz, and the difference between them cannot exceed 30 Hz. . . so if you’re listening to a 400 Hz tone in one ear and a 410 Hz tone in the other, you’ll hear a 10 Hz beat even though both tones are constant. The beat is all in your head.

The explanation given by web sites that sell recordings of binaural beats is that this has the power to radically reshape your mental state through a process called ‘entrainment,’ in which the beat frequency influences your brainwave activity and basically alters it by force. While it all sounds more or less plausibly scientific, the truth is that controlled tests of binaural beats and their effect on the human brain fall quite a bit short of producing the dramatic effects claimed by purveyors of binaural beat recordings. One of the more popular vendors, a site called iDoser, offers a dizzying array of audio files that they claim have the same effect on people as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, psilocybin, LSD, or even Viagra. 

To some extent, the jury is still out on whether or not you can have any sort of profound effect at all on the human brain with binaural beats (aside from what you get from music in general); some studies suggest that they may be helpful as an adjunct to surgical anesthetics, while other studies seem to directly contradict those findings, or show that the effect is no different than what happens when you listen to Mozart, jazz, or dubstep. Some examples:

At Duke University Medical Center, a study in which psychiatrists tested the effects of binaural beats on academic performance found that, on average, subjects who listened to them performed better on an alertness test and were in a better mood than subjects who listened to normal recordings of “pink noise.” A person’s mood is a pretty subjective thing, though, and there was no comparison with ordinary music. . . so it’s possible that anything with a good beat would have the same effect, binaural or not.

Another study conducted in the Anesthesiology Department of Yale Medical School measured the relative anesthesia requirements for sixty patients, split into two groups: one group listened to a binaural beats recording both before and during surgery, and the other group listened to a blank tape. There was no difference in the levels of anesthesia required between the two groups. . . but a different study, at Ninewells Hospital’s Department of Epidemiology in Dundee, Scotland, claimed that patients listening to binaural beats required significantly less of one type of anesthetic – fentanyl – than patients who listened to classical music or a blank tape.

At New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, researchers played binaural beats to thirty people undergoing either a stomach bypass or lower back surgery, and found that while the bypass patients needed less anesthesia than a control group, the lower back patients needed slightly more.

What does it all mean? The idea that you can get high on sound is certainly an interesting one, but even in the studies that seem to show a reduced need for anesthesia, the focus was more on the effects of stress than on the allegedly narcotic power of Heinrich Wilhelm Dove’s parlor trick. You might be able to improve your mood or slow down your pulse a bit by strapping on a pair of headphones and listening to a binaural beat (and you might not), but there’s simply no reason at all to believe that you can simulate the effects of different recreational drugs just by grooving to an audio recording. If you’re a concerned parent, relax; those teenagers you see on YouTube freaking out over what’s coming through their headphones are just mocking the gullible.

Oklahoma City News 9 reports on the terrors that lurk in your child’s iPod

If you want to experiment with binaural beats for yourself, there’s no need to pay anyone or trust some stranger’s YouTube videos. You’ve even got a choice: both Gnaural and rival DIY binary beats suite SbaGen are free of charge and available for Windows, MacOS, or Linux.

Baby Burner Tells All

by Whatsblem the Pro

Haley Dahl, 18, has been attending Burning Man since she was 9.

Haley Dahl, 18, has been attending Burning Man since she was 9.

Where the subject of children attending Burning Man comes up, controversy follows. Strong opinions run the gamut, from people who believe that radical inclusion necessarily means juveniles too, to those who look askance at parents who bring their children to an adult party in a hazardous environment, or even call the practice a form of child abuse.

We’ve explored this topic before, but there’s an important demographic that remains unheard in the controversy: children who grew up going to Burning Man.

Haley Dahl is eighteen years old, and has been going to Burning Man since she was nine. She lives in Los Angeles, where she rocks out with her band, Sloppy Jane.

I met Haley on the playa, and she promised to write to me after the burn and tell me all about her experience growing up in Black Rock City. This is what she wrote:

When I was a child and my family was still an unbroken unit, we would take trips to my Grandpa Yab’s country house in upstate New York every summer. I have only a few vague memories of these traditional family retreats; holding my Raggedy Ann doll in a bed that smelled like leaves, walking in the forest with my grandpa to go see butterflies, and a sense of normalcy that I at this point in my life feel totally disconnected from, because once upon a time in 2004 my dad approached me and said “so this summer we have a few options. We can either go to the country house, or we can do a weird mystery thing that I’m not going to tell you anything about.” And this was how nine-year-old me ended up at Burning Man.

We went, just my dad and I. I remember at that point there was still no cell phone service in Gerlach. We left the last gas station in Nixon and called my mom, her voice quivered on the phone when she said goodbye to us right before we went over a metal bump that signified the end of cell range. I’ll never forget the way she sounded, it was as if she thought that we were never coming back. And I guess, in a way, we never really did. We never went back to the country house. And as we passed through Gerlach, my dad pointed into the desert and said “that is where we are going.” And I said “you mean by the giant cloud of dust?” He looked at me and said “the cloud of dust is where we are going.”

When we got in it was dark. We went to Kidsville. The mayor was wearing a top hat and a diaper. We walked to Center Camp and we thought it was all of Burning Man, and we were totally blown away by it. We put up our tent, it blew away. We spent the rest of the week in the car. I had no costumes so I painted myself blue and wore a mylar emergency blanket as a toga.

The next day we walked around and I remember feeling so overwhelmed by all of the colors, the costumes, the art, it was a world I felt like I had made up in my imagination that had materialized in front of me. I teared up and it made my dad panic. He asked if I was doing okay and asked if I was going to need to go home. I looked up at him and said “thank you for bringing me here.”

Haley Dahl, age ten

Haley Dahl, age ten

I think Burning Man is an excellent environment for children if you are willing to be a parent. Not a fly-little-birdy-go-experience-life-Mommy’s-on-acid kind of parent, but the kind of parent that actually DESIRES to treat Burning Man like a family vacation. Let me explain that a little better; I have talked to a lot of adults who have said “oh, so your parents gave up their Burning Man experience for you.” That is not how I feel about it. My parents are not polyamorous drug-takers or heavy drinkers. They weren’t “giving up” the right to go to the Orgy Dome; they wouldn’t have wanted to go anyway. So it was pretty easy for them to steer me away from anything too raw. I think having attended Burning Man as a child was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It gave me a very strong sense of self at an early age, I entered middle school with self-esteem and totally did not give a shit if I was ostracized for it because I knew I was cool as shit. And in case you didn’t know, that is incredibly rare for a middle school girl.

THAT BEING SAID, I STRONGLY SUGGEST AGAINST BRINGING YOUR FUCKING TEENAGE DAUGHTER TO BURNING MAN. Bringing your child to Burning Man as a child is awesome because they get to spend their early developmental stages being told that it’s totally fine to be an individual. Once your kid is a teenager, especially a girl, I think it’s advisable to take a few years off.

People really like to act like Burning Man is a really safe environment where everyone has evolved past normal human bullshit. That just isn’t true. I’m an attractive young woman who has lived in both Los Angeles and New York, places known for having high scumbag populations. It is safe to say that I have experienced more blatant sexual harassment confrontations at Burning Man than I have anywhere else I have ever been.

Because I attended Burning Man as a child, I grew up pretty fast mentally, and because of hormones in food (or something) I grew up pretty fast physically too. I was an old fourteen, and that was around when Burning Man started becoming less safe for me. People like to pretend that because it’s Burning Man it’s totally okay to catcall and/or be aggressively sexual towards women. That is not okay, especially if the woman is in fact a fourteen-year-old girl.

I remember being drunk and in one of the big dance camps and making out with some random guy. I said “how old are you?” he said “I’m twenty-five.” I said “I’m fourteen.” He paused, looked slightly surprised, and said “I won’t tell if you won’t. . .” and thus began a long saga of disgusting men taking advantage of my naivety and teenage drunkenness.

Haley Dahl, age eleven

Haley Dahl, age eleven

Fast-forward two years to my (now ex) douchebag post-2009 burner boyfriend in his five-hundred-dollar fire-spinning attire drunkenly spitting at me and screaming in my face about how I didn’t know how to experience Burning Man because I wouldn’t let him be free and sleep with other people.

The main problem with growing up at Burning Man is that Burning Man grows up with you. It’s not the home it used to be. The increase in popularity and rise in prices has turned it into a playground for bourgeois assholes who like to act like taking ecstasy and cheating on your wife with a nineteen-year-old white girl wearing a bindi and a feather headdress is enlightenment.

I will always wonder if Burning Man has really changed so hugely since my childhood, or if I am just seeing different sides of it because I’m older now. I’m sure it’s a combination of the two, but ever since Bad Idea Theater closed I’ve spent all of every night at the Thunderdome. . . because if I wanted to go to a fucking rave I would just go to downtown L.A. and pay ten bucks instead of five hundred, you know?

Anyway, by the time I was seventeen I was bored of drugs. Now I’m eighteen, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t drink much, and I go to the gym every day. I never go to parties and I’m not even going to college because my career has already started. If there is anything that Burning Man has robbed me of (other than a fucking normal life), I’d say it robbed me of my twenties. I watch Fraser. Enough said.

Do you have a first-hand story about growing up at Burning Man? Tell us all about it in the comments after you check out Haley’s band, Sloppy Jane, playing the Whisky a Go Go in Hollywood: