Is Facebook the new gateway drug?
Teens who use Facebook and other social media outlets are five times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to drink alcohol and twice as likely to smoke pot than teens that don't use social networks, according to a study released by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University on Wednesday.
But some researchers questioned whether online activity actually puts teens at risk for drug use, saying the link between the two behaviors doesn't suggest social media use encourages drug use.
After surveying 500 parents and 2,000 teens between the ages of 12 and 17, CASA found that 70 percent of teens spend time on some form of social media, which suggests that around 17 million of the country's teens are using social networks.
Half of those teens see pictures of kids drunk, passed out or using drugs while on these sites, CASA found.
Kids who don't use social media can still be exposed to these sorts of pictures, but it is a lot less likely. According to the study, 14 percent of the teens who spend no time on Facebook and the other similar sites have also been exposed to pictures of drunk or drugged peers.
"The relationship of social networking site images of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs ... to increased teen risk of substance abuse offers grotesque confirmation of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words," CASA's chairman and founder Joseph Califano Jr. said in a press release.
But parents don't need to start throwing laptops out of windows and banishing their children back into the technological dark ages just yet. The research showed no evidence that social media influences whether kids use illegal substances.
Some researchers who worked on the study acknowledged that it didn't analyze whether social network use influences illicit behavior. According to a blog post on SFGate:
The research wasn't set up to determine a cause and effect "in part because human will - the individual's decision to use illegal drugs, alcohol and tobacco - always comes into play," Steve Wagner of QEV Analytics, a Washington, D.C., research firm that did part of the study.
Some teens may feel left out when they see peers drinking and having fun on Facebook, but Time magazine questioned whether seeing a picture of someone using a controlled substance influences actual substance use.
Maia Szalavitz wrote:
Given CASA's purported horror at these dangerous images, I was surprised to see that the main webpage of its report shows a teen girl lying on a couch with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, while in the foreground a teen boy lights a joint. Maybe even CASA can't take its own correlation-based fear-mongering seriously anymore?
The parents CASA polled were equally skeptical of social media's effect on teens. Nine out of ten surveyed parents said they thought social media did not make it more likely that their children would use alcohol or drugs.
Some researchers criticized the study for not focusing on the right details. Mike Males, a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, told the Chicago Tribune that the study did not control for other factors -- such as a parent's history with substance abuse -- that could more definitively account for a teenager's foray into drug and alcohol consumption.
The director of Pew Internet & American Life Project's research on teens, children and families, Amanda Lenhart, tweeted that instead of focusing on the increased drug use of those who use social networking sites, CASA should analyze what makes those who don't use social media different.
Almost half of teens who have seen pictures of their peers drunk, passed out or doing drugs on Facebook saw the images by the time they were 13 years-old, according to the study. Ninety percent saw the pictures when they were 15 or younger.
Thirty-five percent of teens who have seen these photos will drink, according to CASA, which is three times more than teens who have not. For pot, the comparison is 25 to 5 percent.
Social networks are increasingly been seen as spaces that can influence teens behaviors -- and not always for the better. In an article earlier this year regarding the newly minted phenomena "Facebook depression," AP wrote about how statuses and pictures can influence teens' psyches:
"With in-your-face friends' tallies, status updates and photos of happy-looking people having great times, Facebook pages can make some kids feel even worse if they think they don't measure up."
Many parents now take an active role in their children's use of social media. Sixty-four percent of parents monitor their children's social networking profile, according to the CASA study.