Parents and researchers agree: social networks are a double-edged sword for today’s teenagers. Although the sites offer an outlet for freewheeling self-expression and identity-building, a new survey finds they may also give “bad influences” more pull over teenagers’ decisions.
Spending time on sites like Facebook and Myspace increased teens’ risk of smoking, drinking, and abusing prescription and illegal drugs, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. The 2011 results are the first in the annual survey’s 15-year history to examine social media’s impact on risk-taking behaviors.
Compared with those who don’t visit the sites daily, teens who do are 5 times likelier to use tobacco, 3 times likelier to drink alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana. The mass appeal of social networks means these risks apply to most US teenagers—70% of adolescents 12 to 17 years spend anywhere from a few minutes to several hours on the sites in a typical day.
In a statement accompanying the results, CASA Founder and Chairman Joseph A. Califano, Jr. said the “anything goes, free-for-all world of Internet expression” is to blame for rising substance abuse risks. The survey confirmed that many teenagers aren’t afraid to post pictures of themselves in compromising situations: 40% of all teens surveyed have seen shots of friends getting drunk, passing out, or abusing prescription or illegal drugs.
For many teens, the posts by their peers signal a direct source of drugs and alcohol, CASA found. Respondents who reported seeing them were more likely to say they could easily acquire marijuana, controlled prescription drugs, or alcohol in less than a day. They are also “much likelier to have friends and classmates who abuse illegal and prescription drugs,” the report stated.
The link between online photos and real-world abuse “offers grotesque confirmation of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words,” according to Califano. He urged parents to monitor their childrens’ activities on social networks: “For better or worse, parents have more influence over their teen’s risk of substance abuse than anyone else.”