Does Facebook Lead to Drinking, Smoking and Drugs?

Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) recently revealed that young people who use Facebook, and other types of social media, are 5 times more likely to smoke, 3 times more likely to drink and 2 times more likely to use marijuana as those who do not. CASA then goes on to claim that these findings show that social media leads to these behaviors.

The study surveyed five hundred parents and two thousand teenagers between the ages of twelve and seventeen and learned that almost three-quarters of the teens participated in social media in one form or another. Extrapolated across the country, the results show that almost twenty million teens are online.

Although the study reveals that teens who are on Facebook also drink, smoke and do drugs, it fails to make any viable connection between the two issues. Not only did the study not examine the substance abuse histories of the parents, but it also failed to inquire into the mental health of the teens – two factors that can play a large role substance abuse.

In discussing the results of the study, CASA attempted to connect exposure to images of substance use to illegal use of these substances. For instance, CASA representatives claim that teens who see pictures of other teens smoking are more likely to smoke. Although half of the respondents revealed that, while using social media, they are exposed to pictures of other teens engaged in risky behaviors such as drinking, smoking and using drugs, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that seeing pictures of peers engaged in such behavior encourages others to do the same.

Clearly, not everybody believes that social media encourages drug, alcohol or tobacco use more than more mainstream types of media. Roughly ninety percent of parents polled stated that they did not believe social media increased the likelihood that their child would start using alcohol or drugs. More important, however, is the fact that the CASA researchers themselves admit that the study did not examine whether social media was influencing the kids’ use of illegal substances.

I think that CASA needs to take a step back and look closely at the 25% of respondents who do not use social media. Facebook is, by definition, a social animal and typically works best when an individual has a social relationship with peers. For a teen who is involved in the social aspects of school, it would likely be strange for them to not also be on Facebook. So, one can assume that teens who do not use social media are either not very social or have parents who are extremely strict and limit access to Facebook and other social media outlets. Either way, these teens are also more likely to not participate in in-person social activities such as dances, parties or sleepovers – situations where illegal substance use typically occurs.