July 1st, 2020

How Does Social Media Affect Teen Substance Use?

A laptop is open with a cell phone resting on it, displaying a list of various apps.

Social media have changed how we engage with the world. They have reshaped how we engage with politics, seek out information, maintain relationships, and make decisions. The impact has been even greater for individuals who are growing up with access to social media access.

How is social media affecting teenagers’ mental, emotional, and physical well-being? Specifically, how has teenagers’ use of social media been affecting their substance use, including use of drugs and alcohol?

It’s important for parents, guardians, teachers, and teens themselves to understand how social media can affect teen substance use. This article will analyze the impacts of social media substance use and offer advice on addressing it.

How many teens are on social media?

Social media are playing an indisputably major role in teen culture. But how many teens actually use it? According to surveys carried out by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 90% of teens have used social media, and 51% use it at least once daily. This means that 37.8 million adolescents have used social media.

Further, data from the Pew Research Center from 2018 indicate:

  • 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 45% of teens say they are online “on a near-constant basis.” Social media are among the most prominent methods by which teens engage with online content
  • The most popular social media platforms are YouTube (used by 85% of all US teens), Instagram (72%), Snapchat (69%)
  • The platforms that see the most frequent use by US teens are Snapchat (35% use it more than any other platform), YouTube (32%), and Instagram (15%)

How much time do teens spend on social media?

Social media habits vary greatly from person to person. However, teens use an average of 9 hours of entertainment media per day.
Of that time, girls spend 1 hour and 32 minutes on social media, while boys spend 52 minutes on it. Extrapolated, this means that teenage girls spend approximately 10 hours and 44 minutes on social media per week, while boys spend around 6 hours, 7 minutes on it. This equals 23.3 days and 13.2 days per year, respectively.

Teens use Snapchat most frequently, However, teens spend the largest amount of time on YouTube. In fact, YouTube outstrips any other content platform. Teens spend 37% of their daily video streaming time on YouTube and 35% on Netflix. This represents a substantial commitment of teenagers’ time. This raises many questions about what they’re watching on YouTube and how it may affect their behavior.

The impact of social media on teens and young adults

An individual’s teenage years are a time of rapid development; and the physical, social, and emotional changes that come with puberty can be a vulnerable and turbulent time of life. While social media can give teens new avenues for self-expression, socialization, and entertainment, they can also complicate teenagers’ lives by:

  • Distracting teens from keeping up academic work or maintaining real-world social connections
  • Disrupting sleep because of nighttime usage
  • Reinforcing unrealistic expectations of oneself and one’s relationships;
  • Increasing negative feelings, such as anxiety, fear, or sadness (particularly in posts about negative news or in vitriolic social interactions). This can contribute to the development of mental health issues in teenagers
  • Putting teens at risk of oversharing, in which sensitive or intimate photos or stories could become a part of a user’s digital footprint
  • Exposing them to potential cyberbullying
  • Exposing them to peer pressure in regards to substance use
  • Increasing risk for more predatory behavior from adults to teens.

The last of these is a concern that many teens share. The Pew Research Center data referenced above indicate that 12% of teens believe that social media influence young users to give in to peer pressure. But can social media influence teens in this way?

Does social media cause substance use in teens?

For many generations, a large percentage of teens have been interested in experimenting with drugs. Unlike past generations, however, teens in the modern world have access to a powerful source of exposure and peer pressure to engage in harmful substance use. While social media cannot directly cause teens to experiment with alcohol or drugs, they can be a powerful motivator to do so.

While drug use in America is on the rise overall, teen substance use continues to decline year over year. This finding is encouraging. However, adults must be aware of the ways in which exposure to social media could encourage a teen to develop unhealthy tendencies with regard to substance use.

Friends and family members

The most influential individuals in a young person’s life are their friends and family members. Seeing these loved ones take part in drug or alcohol use online can have a dramatic impact on a teen’s likelihood to do so as well, normalizing patterns of usage and breaking down stigmas related to substance use.

Teens can develop close bonds with friends in their peer group. To “fit in” with their friends, teens may change their behavior. They may even engage in self-destructive behavior, such as alcohol use. With the prevalence of social media in the modern world, these relationships can become a ubiquitous source of peer pressure in teenagers’ lives. If family members openly take part in substance use on social media or at home, this can further normalize the behavior.

In either case, social media can create distorted perceptions of dangerous substances and encourage risk-taking where a teenager might otherwise not be tempted. Social media can be edited to only show the “good”, giving a false impression of safety or glamorization.

Celebrities and influencers

Much of the content that teens and young adults interact with on social media is created by celebrities and other major influencers. When this content models and normalizes substance use disorders, teens may be influenced to mimic it. An article by the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens presents the scope of this problem:

“(Many celebrities) use their reach and power to promote their use of alcohol and drugs. Wiz Khalifa, Diplo, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj have posted hundreds of pictures with drugs and alcohol … More than 7% of Snoop Dogg’s Instagram photos involve drugs or alcohol. A quick search for the hashtag #marijuana reveals almost 2.8 million posts … ”

This flood of content can be harmful for teens and young adults. Young people may wish to try substances after seeing them glamorized online.

Increased access

Social media make it easier to communicate with people from all walks of life. Thus, teens can use social media to get drugs and alcohol. Many platforms forbid users from using their services to sell drugs. However, it is easy to create new user accounts to facilitate such transactions. Young people, spurred on by the social pressures outlined above, may be tempted to reach out to drug dealers via social media — a dangerous proposition for many reasons.

Tips for talking to your teen about staying healthy

Learning that a teen in your life has begun using illegal substances such as marijuana, other drugs, or alcohol can be distressing. At this time, it’s important to look past your own emotions, assess the situation rationally, and talk about the subject with the teenager in a constructive manner.

Some best practices to impart to teenagers regarding social media use include:

  • Adjust privacy settings and preferences: Review the privacy options of the social media platforms that your teenager uses. Teach your teen how to use the privacy options. Stress the importance of preventing content from making it into strangers’ hands.
  • Avoid oversharing: Advise teens that they should not share anything — including status updates, photos, or videos — that might embarrass or compromise themselves or others. They should assume that anything they put online will be there permanently. Even if they can delete a post on a social media platform, there’s no guarantee that someone else didn’t save it.
  • Don’t do anything in the real world that you wouldn’t want shared online: Teens and young adults can try to curate their digital footprint. However, other people may post videos or images of them without their permission. Avoiding risky or scandalous behavior in the real world will minimize the chances that embarrassing content will make it onto social media. Being under the influence of drugs or alcohol can make this more likely to occur because of lowered inhibitions and less awareness of who is recording and what is being uploaded.
  • Be mindful of whom you follow: Advise teens to critically analyze whom they are following on social media. What kind of messages are they receiving? How do those messages make the teen feel? Urge your teen to actively curate whom they follow. Encourage them to avoid content or messages that make them feel down, get upset, or tempt them into making poor decisions.

These practices will help teens maintain their online reputation and mitigate the effects of peer pressure. Maintaining an open and positive relationship with teens is essential to earning their trust. This will improve the chances that, if they feel tempted to experiment with substance use, they will discuss their feelings with you before making a mistake.

Teenagers’ choices can have major effects on their future. Teenagers’ substance use can sometimes lead to a substance use disorder later in life. Fortunately, there are accessible solutions you can seek out. Technology has made peer pressure surrounding substance use more prevalent. However, it has also brought about new and convenient solutions. Virtual rehab treatment centers are effective methods of addressing substance use disorders. They can help make recovery far easier for parents and young adults.

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