What does Facebook and social media have to do with substance abuse and addiction? The answer seems to be coincidental at best and partly based on generational panic at worst. In the eighties and nineties it was feared that American youth was in danger from cartoons like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and outrageous (at the time) shows like MTV. Not long after this the danger was purportedly coming from chat rooms that were “all the rave” in the late nineties and early 2000’s. And today, the fear is Facebook and other social media like MySpace and Twitter. The general idea is that by using these programs, youth are naturally more likely to engage in substance abuse and other high risk behaviors. However, the logic behind this seems to be seriously flawed – much as it was with these types of hysteria in previous decades.
The current controversy surrounding this issue is primarily about Facebook and is derived from one source – a survey of about 1,000 teens conducted by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. According to Dr. Larry Rosen of California State University, the negative impact of social media – especially Facebook – is abundantly clear:
“Teens who use Facebook more often show more narcissistic tendencies while young adults who have a strong Facebook presence show more signs of other psychological disorders, including antisocial behaviors, mania and aggressive tendencies.
Daily overuse of media and technology has a negative effect on the health of all children, preteens and teenagers by making them more prone to anxiety, depression, and other psychological disorders, as well as by making them more susceptible to future health problems.” (1)
However, the argument that Facebook is the cause of this behavior and not a simple correlation is difficult for many to swallow. It’s similar to the argument that video games cause kids (and adults) to become violent, that television shows like Jackass cause people to do dangerous stunts and other similar arguments that seem to crop up with each new generation. The coincidental nature of the CASA study is touched upon in a scathing article by the CEO of Family Online Safety Institute, Stephen Balkam:
“What becomes painfully clear as you read through the report findings is that they have taken correlations and suggested, no proclaimed, that American teens (strangely aged 12 to 17) are at an increased risk of smoking, drinking and drug use if they spend any time on a social networking site. They’ve taken a statistical connection and turned it into causation. The LA Times equates it to the whacky claims of well-meaning health experts that ice cream might cause polio.” (2)
Balkam refers to a theory that was once expounded by the medical community that because cases of polio were higher in areas where ice cream consumption was also high, ice cream must therefore be a cause of polio.
Nevertheless, coincidental or not some results of the CASA study were disturbing but not necessarily directly caused by spending time on social media sites:
“On a typical day, 70 percent of teens ages 12 to 17 — 17 million teenagers — spend from a minute to hours on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites. . .” “But for this same age bracket, social-network-savvy teens are five times more likely to use tobacco; three times more likely to use alcohol; and twice as likely to use marijuana than teens who do not spend any of their day on social networking sites.” (3)
The real problem with these results is that the primary reason given for the correlation between substance abuse and use of social media is related to images. The study’s authors conclude that because social media allows teens and young adults to see pictures of their friends and acquaintances intoxicated, passed out, displaying drugs or paraphernalia, drinking or engaged in other high risk activities, that the viewer will be more likely to also participate in those activities:
“One of the main reasons the teens gave for visiting the sites, besides actually communicating with friends, is to keep tabs on peers by looking at photographs. The study reported that many of these pictures were of teenagers “drunk, passed out, or using drugs on Facebook and other sites.”
Joseph Califano, founder of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, or CASA, concluded that viewing these pictures contributed to increased use of the risky behaviors, and urged more active monitoring and removal of the images.” (4)
Based on this logic, any exposure to images of people doing drugs or drinking could make any group of young adults or teens more likely to commit those same acts – whether those images are on social networking sites or elsewhere. If this is the case, then we must ask ourselves why regularly seeing images of other things –good or bad – don’t necessarily have any correlation with the actions and behaviors we choose in our lives.
However, the study probably missed out on the real issue – the ability of those with mental illness and drug problems to hide behind their computer screens in a state of isolation. Computers can be used for this purpose quite effectively, regardless of whether the user frequents social media sites, pornographic sites, forums, chat rooms, or just surfs for news and videos. And with more and more people gaining access to computers each year, it’s likely that at some point a study will be released indicating a correlation between heavy internet usage and diseases like addiction and mental illness. But just because these groups of people seek solace in the online world doesn’t mean that the internet is the cause of their troubles.
If you or someone you love is escaping into a world of isolation and drug use, the time and place to reach out for help is here and now. Call the number at the top of your screen for a free, confidential consultation with an addiction expert who isn’t concerned with what social media you’re using and how often, but what you want to do about your substance abuse problem. We’re here 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, so there’s no reason not to call right now. . .
(1) American Psychological Association (2011, August 7). Social networking’s good and bad impacts on kids. ScienceDaily.
(2) Balkam, Stephen Be Afraid of Facebook, Be Very Afraid Huffington Post Parents 08/26/2011
(3) O’Toole, Molly Social networking increases risk of teen drug abuse: study 08/24/2011
(4) Forbes.COM Heavy Facebook Users Prone to Drug Use, Study Says 09/13/2011