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A Guide to Social Media, Drug Addiction and Substance Abuse

Social media use among teens has increased rapidly in recent years, with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat among the most popular platforms. Approximately 90% of 13- to 17-year-olds have used social media, and nearly 94% of teens who have a mobile device report being on more than one platform every day.1,2

As with any technology, there are associated benefits and risks. Social media allows teens to connect with resources and causes they’re interested in, and it’s a form of socializing and communicating with peers.2 But the downside is that it exposes them to cyberbullying, predators, and content that is inappropriate for a young, impressionable teen.1,2 Sexting has become fairly popular among young people, too, with 20% of teens reporting they’ve sent nude photos or videos of themselves via social media.3Teens using their mobile phones

According to a recent survey, 22% of teenagers log on to their favorite social media site more than 10 times a day; as the amount of time they spend online increases, so too does the probability of being exposed to distressing activities such as cyberbullying.3 Parents and other adult figures play a key role in monitoring adolescent social media use to help them avoid engaging in risky behavior as a result of that use, including substance abuse.

How Social Media Affects Mental Health

“Among all teen social network users, only 5% say using their social networking site makes them feel more depressed, compared to 10% who say it makes them feel less depressed.”1 While the reports of distress caused by social media shouldn’t be ignored, they are much more the exception than the rule, and for the majority of teens, the overall influence of social networking seems to be positive.1

Adolescent struggling with addictionHowever, the increased amount of time spent online put some kids into situations in which they may be bullied, which is related to increased anxiety. Researchers recently discovered a problem called “Facebook depression,” which is when teens start displaying signs of depression after spending a lot of time on social media.3 One reason for this might be because people tend to alter their perceptions or make inaccurate assumptions about what they see online, even though what is depicted on social media is not always reflective of reality.4 Similar to offline depression, adolescents who suffer from Facebook depression may isolate themselves and turn to internet and blog sites for help that, in turn, endorse substance abuse, unsafe sex, and aggression.3

The effects of seeing other people’s lives—often highlight reels—online every day impacts teens in many ways:1

Congress, in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), states that 13 years is the minimum age to create a profile on most social media sites.3 As a result, some pre-adolescents (and even some parents) lie about their age to create a profile. Parents should be wary of engaging in unethical practices because it conflicts with typical parenting messages about the importance of integrity.3 As primary care providers and common points of contact for health questions, pediatricians are in a unique position to help educate teens and parents about the potential pitfalls of social media use.

Specific ways in which pediatricians can assist parents include:3

Adolescents can often be the target of online ads and predators since they tend to be impressionable and may not have developed a mature sense of discernment that allows them to make wise choices. Parents, educators, and healthcare professionals can work together to protect them from falling prey to those who wish to harm them via social media.

How It Can Lead to Substance Abuse

According to a survey conducted by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, teens ages 12 to 17 who spent any time on social networking sites in their typical day were at increased risk of smoking, drinking and drug use.5 The United Nations International Narcotics Control Board also warns that illicit internet pharmacies have started using social media to target younger populations.7

Compared with teens who spent no time on social networks, one national survey found that teens who did were:5Teen struggling with mental health

  • 5 times more likely to have used tobacco.
  • 3 times more likely to have used alcohol.
  • 2 times more likely to have used marijuana.

Teens who are cyberbullied are more than twice as likely to smoke, drink, and use marijuana compared to teens who had not been bullied online.5 Nearly 9% of Adderall-related tweets on Twitter contained references to other substances—including illicit ones—an indication that social media could be used as a platform to promote poly-substance abuse.6 Additionally, a review found that 70% of Twitter content came from illicit online pharmacies that were selling medications without requiring a prescription.6

It is important to note that during the past 10 years, online social networking has created major changes in the way people communicate and interact. It is not certain, however, whether some of these changes are directly linked to psychiatric disorders, including substance use disorder and addiction.6 But if you feel your child’s social media use is cause for concern or if you detect a substance abuse issue, finding help right away is always a good idea.

Preventative Steps Parents can Take

Parents should evaluate the sites their teens are on to be sure that they are age- and content-appropriate. Most kids today are smart enough to know how to cover their digital footprint, so parents have to learn to be savvy as well—particularly in the social media world.7

Parents can help their teens avoid dangers associated with social media use by:7

Computer software that monitors online use can help parents track their teen’s social media activity. While some kids may not like this kind of software, knowing that a monitoring program is in place acts a strong deterrent against questionable online activity. It is important for parents to set clear and firm boundaries with their teens, so they know you will check on them regularly until they are old enough to accept all the accountability that goes with responsible online behavior.7Parent and child walking together

This begins with a healthy and open dialogue so that your children can learn to make good decisions on their own. Encourage them to talk to you if they are being bullied, attacked, or sexually harassed, or if they are experiencing mental distress due to social media use. The only way you can help and advocate for your child is if you keep the lines of communication open and build trust with them.

While the new world of social media and teens is creating problems their parents’ generation never dreamed of, coming together as a community to support and protect our kids is a smart way forward.

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