Social Media’s Effect on Adolescents

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University recently conducted a fascinating study that found that teens who use social networking websites are more likely to drink, smoke and do drugs. The researchers discovered that when compared to teens who spent no time at all on social media sites, teens who spent any time during the day on such sites were fives times likelier to use tobacco, three times likelier to use alcohol, and twice as likely to use marijuana.


I emailed Patrick Winters, a top adolescent addiction counselor at the drug and alcohol treatment center I run, and asked him comment on the study. He responded:


"It’s astounding to read some of the statistics, with 89% of parents reporting that viewing social media or social networking sites would not make their child more likely to use drugs. The figures are a little frightening, when we consider that almost 17 million adolescents are online, sharing information on social networking sites. One of the main points we would like to get across to parents is to be more aware of what other social media or social networking sites their children are using. Facebook is typically a social networking site that teens use as intended, since parents and other family members can view status updates, photos and so on. But MySpace, with the thousands of applications, is a little different. It allows teens to be creative and make profiles that say more about who they really are. Teens typically post images and status updates on MySpace that they wouldn’t share on Facebook.


Adolescents are good at showing adults what they would like them to see, and hiding what they don’t want them to see. The well known social networking sites appear to be used as a front to keep parents and friends of the family seeing one thing  – but teens have other websites that they use to hide what they don’t want the adults to know about. The stats are interesting on this report, but I think if research were carried out on some of these other social media sites, it would heighten parental awareness. The message is clear: The Internet can promote and allow adolescents access to other social networking and social media sites that are far more harmful to adolescents than Facebook or MySpace, and we urge parents and adults to be aware of this.


On some of these other social networking sites, teens openly talk about buying, selling and using drugs. They post photos of themselves using, and they talk about different types of parties (pill or “skittle” parties, shot or alcohol parties) that are going on locally. They talk about what drugs to bring and what will be available. In these chat rooms or live feeds, users are able to make up a screen name and post what they have for sale, what they have for trade, or what they are willing to do for drugs and tattoos. When teens find someone who is looking to buy, sell or trade drugs, they then go to private messages (inbox or IM) and trade contact information.


Many parents tell us they are planning to move to a new town or city to help their adolescent break away from old friends. What these parents sometimes fail to understand is that teens can get online and within hours have connected with new substance-using friends, and can be planning to buy or trade for controlled substances on what can only be described as open marketplaces on some of these other social networking sites.


We encourage parents to be vigilant when considering just how much access a teen has to the Internet; many parents are unaware of how easy it is for a teen to access the Web via an MP3 player, a game console or even a friend’s cell phone at school. We try to educate parents and make them more aware of the availability of Internet. We encourage passwords to be used at all times on home wireless systems.


For better or worse, we live in a world of amazing technology. For adolescents who typically are technologically savvier than most of us, the social media and Internet can be a curse if not used properly. Parents must do a better job of monitoring their kids’ usage at home and on smartphones. The fear of accountability is still the best way to help influence kids to make positive choices, and the earlier in life this structure and accountability is started, the better. If a parent waits until late in the game to press for rules, she may find a heightened level of volatility and pushback coming from her child. The bottom line is that parents need to be alert to what their child is seeing and doing on the computer and on smartphones, tablets, MP3 players and all other technologies."