Are Smartphones Keeping Teens Off Drugs and Alcohol?

By Bryan Le 03/20/17

Drug and alcohol use has fallen among teens in the US and UK—researchers say smartphones could be the reason why.

A teenager checking her smartphone in bed.

The rates of teen drinking and drug use in the United States and the UK have fallen over the last 10 years. According to the New York Times, researchers are attributing the trend to an unlikely hero: smartphones.

Phone games and social media “fulfills the necessity of sensation seeking, their need to seek novel activity,” theorizes Dr. Silvia Martins, an associate professor who specializes in substance abuse.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), is meeting with academic researchers to discuss undertaking formal studies to establish a connection between increased smartphone use and the lowest rate of drug use among U.S. teenagers in 40 years.

Among British children aged 11 to 15, drinking dropped from 25% to 9% and smoking dropped from 9% to 3% between 2003 and 2013. A survey by The Health and Social Care Information Centre found that drug use fell from 12% to 6% in the same time period.

Smartphones have also become an integral part of teens’ lives in the same time period. A 2015 report by the Pew Research Center reveals that 24% of U.S. teens between 13 and 17 say they are online “almost constantly,” and around 73% have access to a smartphone. Around 40% of British youths report checking their phone in bed.

The average person touches their smartphone around 3,000 times a day, says neuroscientist Dr. Arko Ghosh. “We can't say exactly how smartphone use affects brain, but there are interesting correlations between smartphone behaviour and brain activity,” he told the Independent

David Greenfield, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, says smartphones act as “portable dopamine pumps.”

But Ghosh warns that it’s still too early to definitively say that smartphones act on the same neural pathways as drugs and alcohol. “Everything has to do with your reward system in some way,” he says.

While smartphones would be considered by most to be a better way for youths to get their dopamine kick, addiction to smartphones themselves is a growing problem for kids and adults. A company called alldayPA actually offers “digital detox” to those who can’t seem to put their smartphones down, to help them get their real lives back on track.

A spokesperson for the company says Digital Detox "will break the cycle of dependency, allowing even the busiest person to leave the mobile behind and focus on the task at hand or even enjoy a restful, communication-free break without worrying about missed calls or messages.”

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Bryan Le grew up in the 90's, so the Internet is practically his third parent. This combined with a love for journalism led him to The Fix. When he isn't fulfilling his duties as Editorial Coordinator, he's obsessing over fancy keyboards he can't justify buying. Find Bryan on LinkedIn or Twitter