Fact-Check: A Survey Links Facebook to Drug Use in Teens

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The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) released its annual “Back to School” survey on Wednesday. Among the findings: teens who use social networking sites like Facebook are five times more likely to use tobacco, nearly three times more likely to use alcohol and nearly twice as likely to smoke marijuana than those who do not.

In a statement accompanying the release of the report, CASA founder Joe Califano writes, “The results are profoundly troubling. 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.”

However, as with much of the center’s previous work, the research methods used here cannot actually determine whether social media causes increased substance use or whether the association is simply related to a third factor, such as teens’ concern about their social status or conversely, having strict parents.

MORE: Viewpoint: Smoke a Joint, Lose Your Child?

Seventy percent of the teens surveyed said they used social networks daily. However, only 10% of social networkers used tobacco products, 26% drank alcohol and 13% admitted marijuana use.

The survey included more 1,000 teens aged 12 to 17 and their parents, who were contacted based on their home address and then asked to fill out the survey online. Overall, the 21% of teens reported ever using alcohol, 8% said they had used tobacco and 11% had smoked marijuana, statistics that are comparable with other recent household surveys.

But teen drug use is actually lower today than it was before the era of social media: for example, in 1995, before the Internet took off, 16% of teens age 12 to 17 reported marijuana use, 41% alcohol and 38% had smoked cigarettes. The statistics for the late 1970s and early 1980s are even higher.

MORE: How to Find the Best Drug Treatment for Teens: A Guide for Parents

Another correlation identified in the CASA report links watching sexually suggestive shows like Skins, Jersey Shore and Teen Mom with greater risk of tobacco, alcohol and drug use. But previous research has shown that teen rebellion rarely restricts itself to one type of behavior, so such correlations are hardly surprising.

The CASA survey further found that 40% of teens who spent time on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites said they had seen pictures online of kids getting drunk, passed out or using drugs. These teens were more likely than those who didn’t view such photos to report using alcohol, marijuana and other drugs — but here, too, it’s impossible to tell whether the link is causal.

Teens who use drugs themselves are almost certainly better at identifying pictures depicting drug use than non-users, and may be more likely to recall such images.

Califano writes:

Especially troubling — and alarming — are that almost half of the teens who have seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on Facebook and other social networking sites first saw such pictures when they were 13 years of age or younger; more than 90 percent first saw such pictures when they were 15 or younger. These facts alone should strike Facebook fear into the hearts of parents of young children.

Given CASA’s purported horror at these dangerous images, I was surprised to see that the main webpage of its report shows a teen girl lying on a couch with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, while in the foreground a teen boy lights a joint. Maybe even CASA can’t take its own correlation-based fear-mongering seriously anymore?

Correlative studies are useful for finding these kinds of connections, but the research should not stop there. A recent study, for example, finds an inverse correlation between a penile length and a country’s gross domestic product — nations that averaged smaller penis sizes had faster economic growth than countries with larger penises between 1960 and 1985 — but no one seriously believes that penis reduction will solve our economic problems.

Likewise, even if it were possible to stop teens from using social networks — or for adults to truly monitor teen Facebook use — the odds that this would reduce drug use are low.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.