Teenage Facebook users are highly susceptible to drug abuse, according to a self-reporting survey conducted in 2011 and 2012 by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. However, despite a great deal of sometimes-skewed media coverage of the survey results, few people have questioned the methodology used to collect data in the survey. To make matters worse, the media often under-reported the story, leading to a general lack of public knowledge about how the results were obtained and how they were interpreted. This article examines the exact survey and seeks to answer whether Facebook users of any age are at increased risk for drug abuse.
General Survey Methodology
Nearly all articles, television reports and other media coverage indicating that Facebook and other social media users are more likely to abuse drugs than non-users derives from a single source: the National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens. This survey was conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York.
The survey of 1,003 teenagers was conducted entirely by telephone and relied primarily on self-reporting answers from the teens. Many of the questions relied on opinions from the teens surveyed and in the majority of cases the queries centered on the teens’ opinions and assessments of their peers. Survey administrators asked teens:
“. . .questions about their schools, their families, their use of social networking sites like Facebook, their friends’ and classmates’ substance use, and their access to tobacco, alcohol, and illegal and prescription drugs.”
This language means that the survey relied heavily on opinion and speculation and did not target the respondent’s actual individual substance abuse history except cursorily. In fact, the study notes that:
“Although this survey includes some questions on past and current substance use, it is not intended to be an epidemiological study. For measurements of the actual prevalence of various types of substance use, there are better sources of data. . . “
Regarding personal alcohol and tobacco use, there were two questions for each substance:
Have you ever in your life had a drink of beer, wine or other alcoholic beverage?
During the past 30 days, on how many days did you have at least one drink of alcohol?
The 2 questions concerning tobacco use were nearly identical. In regard to personal drug use, there was only one question asked in the survey:
Have you ever in your life used marijuana?
The survey did not ask any other questions about personal experience with drugs. All other questions were based primarily on the opinions and perceptions of the respondents.
Results of the Survey
The results of the survey as presented and reported by the media at large can be summarized as two primary points:
1.) Teens who view images on social media sites of other teens using drugs, drinking, smoking cigarettes or partying are more likely to engage in the same behaviors simply as a result of viewing these images.
2.) Teens who view images on social media sites of other teens using drugs, drinking, smoking cigarettes or partying are more likely to have close friends who engage in those same behaviors.
The survey does not define social media, but does specifically mention Facebook and MySpace.
Is it Imagery, or Social Media?
As noted previously, the overall findings of the survey in regard to social media are centered exclusively on images. The survey concludes that teens that use Facebook and other social media and view images of other teens using drugs, drinking or smoking are more likely to engage in these same behaviors. Therefore, the idea that Facebook or social media is to blame is incorrect even by the survey’s own conclusion. The issue is not with social media; it’s with teens who view the images in question.
In fact, if we assume that these results are accurate, it shouldn’t be surprising. It has long been argued that young people who see negative things like drugs and violence portrayed in a positive light can subsequently be influenced to engage in negative thinking and behaviors. This theory has been espoused regarding images on television and in movies, content in music, images and plots in video games and so on.
Because the survey did not define social media, it may have excluded websites that feature images and graphic content but are not considered social media, such as photography websites, YouTube, forums, etc. This is an important consideration because teens use these types of sites heavily and are often exposed to the same kinds of images found on traditional social media sites. Chances are great that if all image and graphic content sources online were included in the definition, the survey would instead conclude that “viewing images of other teens doing drugs, drinking or smoking online results in higher instance of personal drug use and drug use among friends.”
So again, the problem is not with social media: the problem is with the graphic glorification of negative behaviors.
How seriously can we take some of These Results?
The methodology used in the study is reliant on assumption. Teens are asked what percent of other teens in their schools drink or use drugs, but the accuracy of their answers is not measured in any way; they are simply accepted at face value. Unfortunately, there are several problems with responses from this demographic about these particular subjects:
*Responses may be fabricated in order to avoid perceived or actual liability
*Responses may be fabricated in order to fit within an expected response type
*Responses may be fabricated in order to seem “cool” and “normal”
*Responses could be fabricated in order to fit within a set of ideals the respondent wishes to be associated with
*Responses may be invalidated by naivety.
Despite these potential flaws in the validity of the answers collected, the deeper problem is found in the fact that it’s extremely challenging for teens to make assessments of others. For instance, when asked what percentage of their classmates use drugs, one teen’s assessment of their classmates is likely to be different than another teen’s assessment of the same classmates.
This is equivalent to a workplace drug use study where the data is solely derived from the opinions of employees; while the results may be interesting, they are in no way credible or scientific in nature. Conjecture, hearsay, gossip, experience, inexperience, social stature and other influences all factor in a person’s perception about others, and in many cases we make assessments that later turn out to be completely inaccurate.
Some Parents were listening in
An additional factor that skews the results of this survey is the fact that a minimum of 22% of respondents reported that they were in a situation where someone could overhear their conversation with the interviewer. This means that more than 2 out of every 10 respondents were likely providing answers that were influenced by a lack of privacy. If corrected this deficiency may have worked in favor of the results as currently reported by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Because 22% of the results were possibly influenced as a result of privacy concerns, these results should not be attributed to the survey’s conclusion even though it may have bolstered the findings as presented.
Were Honest Responses Provided?
The survey reported that 64% of the teenage respondents indicated that:
“. . . their average grades are all A’s or mostly A’s and B’s . . .”
However, this means that the 1,003 students were an exceptionally bright group considering that the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average GPA in U.S. high schools is only 3.0: 2.90 for boys and 3.01 for girls. (1) Consequently we must conclude as a result of this information that:
1.) Teens who view images of other teens on social media sites using drugs, drinking, smoking or partying perform much better overall in school
2.) Teens who took the survey exaggerated about their grades.
If the case is the former then this is an important piece of information omitted from the survey results and correlation of data. If the case is the latter then it would be prudent to assume that if teens exaggerated responses about their academic performance, one must conclude that it is likely that some other responses were exaggerated as well.
Was the Survey Unbiased?
Certain elements of the survey indicate possible personal bias or emotional association. For instance, this line of hyperbole early in the report:
“For millions of America’s teens, drugs and alcohol, not more advanced education, are what put the “high” in the high schools they attend.”
And this line containing opinion preceding a conclusion;
“The disgraceful bottom line:”
Other statements include unsubstantiated claims that most people would agree are inaccurate at best and misleading at worst;
“A child who gets through age 21 without smoking, abusing alcohol, or using drugs is virtually certain never to do so.”
While there is cause for concern about the level of bias – if any – as well as the loose methodology used in this survey, there is also concern in the fact that the media both over- and under-reported the survey, resulting in a significant amount of hype that does not reflect the reality of the survey methodology or interpreted results.
What is the Resolution to this Issue?
Regardless of the particulars of the survey data collection methods and reporting procedures, parents should be aware that the more their teens are exposed to images, depictions, graphics, videos, stories, etc of other teens engaging in negative behaviors, the more likely it is that – without the proper education and supervision – this behavior will be deemed acceptable and imitated. This applies to all types of media, networking and entertainment; not just Facebook and social media.
In fact, Facebook and other social media sites can be a positive influence in this regard considering that there are thousands of social media pages dedicated to helping teens and others avoid drugs and live a healthy, productive life. So if you subscribe to the conclusions of the study, then by default you must also agree that Facebook can be used for good. By viewing positive images of teens doing good deeds, volunteering, achieving goals and so on, other teens will be encouraged to engage in these same acts based on the principles of the survey. However, the ultimate reality is that there is much more to the social influences of teens than the images that they see.
National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University August 2012
(1) The Nation’s Report Card America’s High School Graduates National Center for Education Statistics U.S. Department of Education