Social Networking Tied to Teen Drug, Alcohol Use

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Updated: 8/23/2012 9:42 pm

Aug. 23, 2011 -- Teens who spend time on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and other social networking sites may be more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and use drugs.

That's according to Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). CASA recently polled more than 2,000 teens online or by phone, as well as 528 parents of teens.

The results show that compared to teens who don't visit social networking sites daily, those who do are:

  • Five times more likely to use tobacco
  • Three times more likely to drink alcohol
  • Twice as likely to use marijuana

Most teens -- 70% -- said they spend anywhere from one minute to hours a day on social networking sites.

But it's not the fact that teens visit social network sites that makes them more likely to abuse alcohol or other drugs. Instead, the issue seems to be what they view on those sites. Forty percent of the teens in CASA's survey said they have seen images of intoxicated kids, including some who are passed out, as well as pictures of peers using drugs.  

The CASA report does not prove that social networking caused teens to abuse alcohol or other drugs. Surveys like this show associations but cannot prove cause and effect.

Parents Just Don’t Understand

Parents may not see the risk. CASA's report shows that about nine out of 10 parents don't think that social networking raises their teens' risk for drug or alcohol abuse.

But they may not know what's on those sites. The survey showed that 64% of parents whose teen has a presence on a social network said they don’t monitor what goes on there.

“Parents need to monitor their kids with respect to social networking and the TV shows they watch, and know what their kids’ lives are like,” says CASA President Joseph Califano Jr.

Social networking sites pose some unique challenges for parents. These sites expand cliques and peer groups almost exponentially. As a result, parents should know what their kids are doing, what their friends are doing, and even what their friends’ friends are doings, Califano says.

Reality TV, Cyberbullying Also an Issue

It is not just what they see on the Internet that influences these decisions. Teens who watch “suggestive teen programming” such as reality TV shows like Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, 16 and Pregnant, and teen dramas such as Skins or Gossip Girl are also more likely to use tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana, CASA's survey shows.

“It is a phenomenal assault on public health that we subject teens to pictures of drugs, alcohol, or teens being drunk or passed out on the Internet, in films, and on TV shows that are suggestive and glorify drinking and drugging,” Califano says.

Cyberbullying also plays a role. In CASA's survey, teens who reported that someone had posted nasty or embarrassing things about them online are at greater risk for substance abuse. One in five teens aged 12 to 17 have been cyberbullied, the survey showed.

Teens have always been subject to peer pressure, and virtual peer pressure via social networking sites is no exception, says Andres Huberman, MD, the medical director of Project Outreach in West Hempstead, N.Y., which is part of Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, N.Y.

“They see these images and there are no moral or educational statements accompanying them, so teens may be left with the impression that this is what the real world is about and that everybody is doing it, so it is OK,” Huberman says.

Parents should keep an eye on what is happening, but social networks can make it difficult to do so, says Huberman, who is a parent of teens. Parents need to find a way to “meet” their teen’s virtual friends in the same way that they would their actual friends, he says.

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