Two Countries, Two Reports: Is Social Media Really Leading Youth to Drugs and Alcohol Or Is It A Convenient Place to Put Blame?

It’s 10 p.m.; do you know what your teenager is tweeting about? Two reports released in the last month suggest a strong link between social media and youth drug and alcohol use. Do the statistics mean anything or are they misplacing the blame?

It’s 10 p.m.; do you know what your teenager is tweeting about? Two reports released in the last month suggest a strong link between social media and youth drug and alcohol use. Do the statistics mean anything or are they misplacing the blame?

Earlier this month, Britain’s Charity Alcohol Concern released a report titled New Media, new problem that suggested that social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube are exposing youth to alcohol advertisements and that youth are using social networks to document nights out, resulting in increased drinking habits. The study stated that: “the growing importance to alcohol companies of social networking sites (SNSs) like Facebook and video sharing sites such as YouTube as a means of promoting their products, and the inadequacies of online age verification pages aimed at preventing under 18s from accessing content intended for adults.”

Don Shenker, Chief Executive of Alcohol Concern noted that “it’s [ ] increasingly common for young people to use sites like Facebook and YouTube to document their parties and nights out, posting details of their heavy drinking and discussing their favourite drinks.”

Today, a new study released by the American National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University suggests a strong link between social media use and drug and alcohol use. The study, which surveyed approximately 2000 teens between the ages of 12-17 by phone and online, suggests that youth that spend time on social networks during the day are five times more likely to buy tobacco, three times more likely to use alcohol and twice as likely to experiment or use marijuana.

The American study supports the findings of the British findings and argues that it’s “no wonder–with what’s on Facebook and other social networking sites for teens to see:

  • Half of the teens who spend any time on social networking sites in a typical day have seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on these sites.
  • Even 14 percent of those teens who spend no time on social networking sites in a typical day have seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on these sites.”

It doesn’t look good for social media. However, Joseph Califano, the center’s chairman, pointed out in a Chicago Tribune article that, “we’re not saying (social media) causes it. But we are saying that this is a characteristic that should signal to (parents) that, well, you ought to be watching.” He goes on to say that the studies are still relatively new.

So, how concerned should parents be with their children’s use of social media? Is Facebook really resulting in more underage drinking? Is Twitter leading to drug use? Maybe. But, then again, maybe not.

Not only are the studies relatively new, they have drawn links without isolating variables. For example, is the link between social media use during the day and alcohol use a result of the social media or is it a result of free time during the day? Do teenagers who spend more time on social media have more time in general and fewer extracurricular activities to keep them busy?  Is social media to blame for “seeing photos and videos of friends drunk” or is social media another – more technologically advanced – form of peer pressure?

The questions raised aren’t meant to dismiss the studies; however, before social media gets all the blame, we need to start asking whether social media is the cause or merely a symptom of other problems.