Parents Face New "Facebook Fear"

By Jennifer Matesa 08/24/11

Social networking for teens is a form of "electronic child abuse," increasing the risk of substance abuse, claims CASA chairman of a study released today.

Addict in the making? Thinkstock

Teens who use social networking sites are five times more likely to use tobacco, three times more likely to drink, and twice as likely to smoke pot compared with those who don't, according to the 16th annual “back-to-school” study released today by Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University. The apparent risk comes from kids’ exposure to pictures of peers drinking, smoking and using drugs, said CASA founder and chairman, Joseph A. Califano Jr., who served as secretary of Health, Education and Welfare in the Carter administration. “Continuing to provide the electronic vehicle for transmitting such images constitutes electronic child abuse,” said Califano, adding the study should “strike Facebook fear” into every parent’s heart and calling for social networking site owners to deny access to kids posting such images because of the “increased teen risk of substance abuse.” From the study’s actual numbers, it’s not quite clear what “increased teen risk” means: 70% of teens surveyed use social networking sites upward of one minute per day, but 78% said they’ve never had even one alcoholic drink in their lives, and 92% said they’ve never smoked tobacco. As for drugs, the focus was on what kids perceived about their friends’ habits: Three-quarters said they knew no one who had ever used pot; three-quarters said the same about illegal drugs; 86% said they knew no one who used prescription drugs to get high; and 91% said none of their friends had ever used over-the-counter drugs to get high. Steven Wagner, president of QEV Analytics—a Washington, DC-based public-opinion research firm that worked with CASA on the study—told The Fix, “This is not an epidemiological study. We’re looking primarily at proximity to drugs—namely, how many of [the teens’] friends are smoking marijuana or using prescription drugs.” Wagner noted the study surveyed 12- to 17-year-olds and that drug-use increased with age, with the "tipping point," he said, being around 15. Asked to break out the stats by age-group, Wagner said 1% of 12-year-olds had used pot, while by age 15-17 the number leveled off at a mere 18%. The CASA study also warned against Internet bullying, “which is related to increased drug-use,” Wagner said. He added that CASA recommends parents “not necessarily tell a kid they can’t use the social networking sites, but to realize they’re going to be exposed to these risks and to do a little preemptive communicating.”

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Jennifer Matesa is a Voice Award Fellow at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and is the author of the blog Guinevere Gets Sober. She is the author of several books, including the non-fiction, The Recovering Body, about physical and spiritual fitness for living clean and sober. You can find Jennifer on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.