Thursday 25 August 2011

Does Facebook cause substance abuse?

Hot on the heels of Alcohol Concern's dodgy report about how Facebook causes binge-drinking comes a report from America's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), the neo-prohibitionist lobby group set up by Joe Califano in the early 1990s (see Velvet Glove, Iron Fist for Califano's background).

As faithfully report by Fox News and others, the report concludes that:

Facebook Linked to Teenage Drinking, Drug Use

American teenagers of middle and high school age are more likely to smoke, drink and use drugs if they also spend time on social networking sites, according to a new study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

The study, released Wednesday found that teens spending any time at all on social networking sites were five times more likely to smoke cigarettes, three times more likely to drink and twice as likely to smoke marijuana.

Califano has wasted no time in blaming Facebook et al. for kids drinking, smoking and taking drugs:

“The relationship of social networking site images of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs and of suggestive teen programming to increased teen risk of substance abuse offers grotesque confirmation of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.“

He has no doubt that correlation equals causation:

"This year’s survey reveals how the anything goes, free-for-all world of Internet expression, suggestive television programming and what-the-hell attitudes put teens at sharply increased risk of substance abuse.

"Especially troubling - and alarming - are that almost half of the teens who have seen pictures ... first saw such pictures when they were 13 years of age or younger. These facts alone should strike Facebook fear into the hearts of parents of young children."

And there are the inevitable policy demands:

"The time has come for those who operate and profit from social networking sites like Facebook to deploy their technological expertise to curb such images and to deny use of their sites to children and teens who post pictures of themselves and their friends drunk, passed out or using drugs. Continuing to provide the electronic vehicle for transmitting such images constitutes electronic child abuse.”

"Electronic child abuse" and "Facebook fear" are strong terms, so what is the evidence to back them up? The survey's findings were as follows:

Compared to teens who in a typical day do not spend any time on a social networking site, those who do are:
  • Five times likelier to use tobacco (10 percent vs. two percent).
  • Three times likelier to use alcohol (26 percent vs. nine percent).
  • Twice as likely to use marijuana (13 percent vs. seven percent).

The first thing to note is that 70% of the teenagers used a social networking site, and so the 'control group' (those who didn't) are not typical—they make up just 30% of the sample. This should lead us to ask the key question of why this minority of teenagers are not on Facebook, MySpace etc. in a 'typical day'? Maybe they don't have many or any friends. Maybe their parents won't let them have a computer or use social networking sites. Maybe they come from families who have strong moral or religious objections to using these sites. Perhaps they are strict Mormons or belong to the Plymouth brethren. Any or all of these factors would be consistent with non-Facebook users being non-drinkers, non-smokers and non-drug takers.

Teenagers use Facebook, in part, to socialise, organise nights out and share photos of those nights out. Those who are less interested in socialising will be less interested in using a social networking site, but they are also likely to be less interested in using the substances that act as a social glue for many teenagers (like it or not).

Before anyone gets upset, I am not suggesting that people who abstain from alcohol and tobacco (or Facebook) are friendless bores with no social lives. But I would contend that parents who won't let kids use social networking sites are more likely to keep from away from tobacco and alcohol.

Unlike Alcohol Concern—which blames the drinks industry for the phony Facebook menace—CASA thinks that social networking sites spread substance misuse by allowing users to post photos of nights out. This, it seems, warps the fragile little minds of American youth.

No wonder [Facebook users are more likely to use substances] – with what’s on Facebook and other social networking sites for teens to see:

  • Half of the teens who spend any time on social networking sites in a typical day have seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on these sites.
  • Even 14 percent of those teens who spend no time on social networking sites in a typical day have seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on these sites.

I have no idea what the second bullet point means. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg has found a way of beaming Facebook directly into children's brains. But let's move on...

Compared to teens who have not seen such pictures, teens who have seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on Facebook or other social networking sites are:

  • Three times likelier to use alcohol.
  • Four times likelier to use marijuana.

This is very likely to be true, but it tells us nothing more than that drinkers and pot-smokers tend to have friends who are drinkers and pot-smokers. It is merely confirmation that (a) like-minded people tend to associate with each other, and (b) lifestyle choices are influenced by one's peers.

Properly interpreted, this information is underwhelming to the point of banality. Teenagers saw their friends drunk, smoking and passed out before the age of Facebook, and will continue to do so if Califano succeeds in forcing the people at Facebook "to deploy their technological expertise to curb such images" (a massive infringement of free speech and free expression which should be opposed by all right-thinking people).

Joe Califano is 80 years old, so perhaps it is too much to expect him to understand that social networking sites do nothing more than extend social networks in the digital age. But even he should be able to spot the chasm between correlation and causation in this survey. After all, if Facebook really does double, triple and quintuple substance abuse, we should have seen a massive rise in drinking, smoking and drug-taking amongst American youth in recent years.

Here is how Facebook went from having virtually no users to having half a billion users in the space of six years.

Teenage use of Facebook has risen from practically zero to 70% since 2004. If social networking sites make kids five times more likely to smoke, we should see some effect on the national smoking prevalence figures. Instead...

For current cigarette use, the prevalence increased from 27.5% in 1991 to 36.4% in 1997, declined to 21.9% in 2003, and then declined more gradually, to 19.5% in 2009.

For current frequent cigarette use, the prevalence increased from 12.7% in 1991 to 16.8% in 1999, declined to 9.7% in 2003, and then declined more gradually, to 7.3% in 2009.

And if users of social networking sites are three times more likely to use alcohol, we should also see a significant rise. Instead...

Current alcohol use among high school students remained steady from 1991 to 1999 and then decreased from 50% in 1999 to 42% in 2009.

Of the three substances under discussion, only marijuana has seen a rise in use in recent years, and the rise has been fairly slight.

The mistake made by CASA (and let's be charitable and assume it was a mistake) is to assume that the teenagers who don't use Facebook are the 'normal' ones who have evaded infection by the social networking evil. From that false assumption comes the belief that if Facebook stopped allowing users to share their depraved photos, substance abuse by the site's users would drop to the same level as its non-users. But the figures show that the non-users are far from 'normal'. Only 2% of them smoke, only 9% of them drink and only 7% of them use pot. This would be considered exceptionally low in any generation, with or without Facebook.

The question is not what Facebook does to kids to make them drink, smoke and take soft drugs. The question is why do abstainers from these substances also abstain from Facebook. That is a more interesting question, but the answer would not help CASA's agenda so it goes unasked.


The Devil's Thadvocate said...

Correlation is not the same as causation. I am left wondering if CASA properly adjusted these data to adjust for age issues. I suspect that the teens who have access to Facebook tend to be older, which also makes them more likely to have used other substances. Even if they were adjusted and Facebook use was associated with a higher rate of any of these things, it does not mean that using Facebook causes teens to abuse might just mean that teens who abuse substances are more willing to lie about their age to get a Facebook account. o.O

Prohibition drives up the profit margins for the drug dealers and lines the pockets of corrupt power-mongers. It does not cure the addiction to money and power.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that marijuana use is higher than tobacco use, in both the facebook and non facebook groups.

Christopher Snowdon said...


I think the age aspect is a very important point. I can't see any evidence that they adjusted for age in the results. The results do show that the parents of the youngest kids are most concerned about Facebook, which suggests the youngest kids will be less likely to use it. Since the youngest kids are less likely to use substances, this is a major flaw in the survey.


Anonymous said...

"I'm surprised that marijuana use is higher than tobacco use"

They probably only have considered cigarette use and not included those teens that smoke the less expensive little cigars.

Also; I have heard,teens seem to find little cigars to look 'cooler'.

Gary K.

nisakiman said...

Once again you expose the chicanery deployed by these charlatans seeking to further their prohibitionist agenda.

As you point out, any kid these days who doesn't use Facebook or similar is decidedly not normal.

manuel said...

Is the study really true? Because I spend time on social media but I didn’t became one of them, well this is for my case. I found those teens that are addicted to alcohol very pitiful. They waste their money, time and strength over useless things. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t encourage my teens to connect to the social media just to lessen their chances of becoming a smoker or a drunkard because I am not worried for I know how to be a good parent.