Social Media and Addiction

Word of Mouse Advertising

Many of us who work in the field of addiction have long suspected that social media and young people struggling with drug/alcohol addiction go hand in hand.  Previously, if a kid saw several friends drinking or smoking marijuana, he might want to try it himself. In a sense it’s natural for kids to experiment in many different ways. But now multiply that by each kids’ hundreds of connections on Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, etc. Social media makes drinking and drugging behavior accessible to a huge network of adolescents, far beyond an average teen’s normal peer group. It’s essentially word of mouth gone viral.

Social Media and Substance Abuse

There is now some data to show that teens who use social media are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. A 2011 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University reports that teens that spent “some” time on a social networking site were five times more likely to use tobacco (10 percent versus 2 percent), three times more likely to use alcohol (26 percent versus 9 percent), and twice as likely (13 percent versus 7 percent) to have used marijuana than teens that did not visit social networking sites at all during a given day.

What’s more, a disturbing new UCLA study featured in Psychiatric Times just this week shows that teens undergoing treatment for substance abuse disorders have their recovery negatively impacted when they use Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. Sixty-six percent of the kids studied told researchers that they wanted to use drugs after visiting their friends’ pages on social media sites. It’s the old people, places and things, only social media style.

The study also points out something very important: that only 22% of the teens interviewed were able to easily discover recovery-oriented material on Facebook, leading one researcher to write: “We are planning to establish a Facebook group as an intervention. In this way, we can engage youth and enable them to access educational information anytime and anywhere.”

Access to Advertising

The researchers in the UCLA study said that trying to block teens from social media sites was pointless since they would always find some way to access them, whether at home or at school. Much more importantly, parents need to be aware of what is going on with their kids and these sites.

Most parents are aware of beer and liquor ads on television and in magazines, but how many parents know that material encouraging alcohol use is to be found all over social media? Many liquor companies use their Internet pages to drive readers towards Facebook. (Before you can even register your age on the Jack Daniel’s site there is a Facebook “Like” symbol). Facebook allows alcohol advertising only to people aged 21 and up, but millions of teenagers lie about their age on Facebook.  This is not to mention the literally thousands of user-generated Facebook pages extolling hard drinking and publishing photos, many of them encouraged by liquor companies which run photo contests, and to which all Facebook users have access.

Most parents are probably also unaware that YouTube is a place where liquor companies like Budweiser (“Beer and Porn”) and Smirnoff (“Tea Partay”) run commercials too lengthy and risqué for television, featuring very young-appearing actors enjoying the good life with alcohol. Encouraging kids to “drink responsibly” after these ads is a joke.

All of which is to say that parents need to talk to their kids not just about alcohol, but about alcohol marketing via social media. In a certain sense, from a parent’s point of view, this is “stealth” marketing, because you are no longer the gatekeeper to what gets sold to your kids—social media is.

Take a Selfie

This is not to say that social media is necessarily responsible for kids becoming addicts and alcoholics, just that there is evidence that it does facilitate behavior that can put kids in real danger. The CASA study also asked teens if they had seen pictures of other teens getting drunk, passed out, or using drugs on social media sites. Fifty-one percent of those who used social networking sites regularly said they had. About half of all the teens surveyed said they had seen those pictures at age 13 or younger.

CASA said it found a link between kids who had seen these pictures and those who had used alcohol, 35 percent to 12 percent. They were also four times more likely to have used marijuana, or 21 percent versus 5 percent, CASA found.

“Compared to teens who have not seen pictures of kids getting drunk, passed out or using drugs on social networking sites, teens who have seen such pictures are more than twice as likely to say they are very or somewhat likely to try drugs in the future (12 percent vs. five percent),” the study said.

Yes. Be Nosy

The best treatment for a kid who may be at risk of becoming an addict is a parent who is caring concerned—and nosy enough to insist on checking out that Facebook page.