Fewer teenagers are using drugs and alcohol than ever before, but extreme screen time usage may be their preferred vice
By Lilly O’Donnell
Today’s teens are a bunch of squares, according to the Monitoring the Future study from Michigan University, which has measured drug and alcohol use among teenagers since 1975.
Every year, researchers survey approximately 45,000 eighth, 10th, and 12th graders, and their 2015 results show the lowest percentage of teens using alcohol and drugs since 1990. (Alcohol use showed the most dramatic drop, and the only drug that teens are using more today than they were in the Nineties is marijuana.)
This sounds like good news, right? But there’s a catch: Some researchers believe that social media might be at least partly responsible for this decline. If that’s true, it means that drug and alcohol use haven’t declined because kids today are better-behaved or more cautious than they used to be, but because they’re spending less time hanging out together, developing social skills and emotional maturity, learning about each other’s diverse backgrounds, and more time alone, staring at their phones, growing into socially-isolated, hunchbacked teetotalers.
“There may be a protective effect brought about by the fact that they don’t have so many occasions to get together where the use of drugs would be facilitated,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told USA Today.
Volkow didn’t express any concern about the social implications of teens spending less time together and more time on their phones. “It’s wonderful to see,” she said, “but understanding it will be very important because then we can try to emulate it, be proactive and try to sustain it.”
But should we really celebrate the fact that teenagers are too absorbed in their phones to, well, act like teenagers?
According to Monitoring the Future, only 6.4 percent of 12th graders surveyed in 2015 had tried hallucinogens, compared to a peak of 15.1 percent in 1997. Alcohol use showed the most dramatic drop; from 70.1 percent of eighth graders and 88 percent of 12th graders having had a drink in 1990 to 26.1 percent and 64 percent respectively in 2015.
But teens are still getting a fix; they’re just finding it somewhere else. A 2015 report from Common Sense Media showed that teens spend an average of nine hours per day consuming media online, and a CNN study showed that some 13-year-olds check their social media accounts 100 times per day. These extreme-sounding levels of interaction make sense when you factor in the results of the UCLA study published earlier this year, which found that “likes” on social media activate the reward centers in teen brains that are also associated with sexual gratification and intoxication.
It’s like social media is serving as a universal methadone, a replacement to give kids the same gratification they would have otherwise gotten from experimenting with drugs. But, much like methadone, this replacement fix isn’t necessarily safer than the classics – social media is too new for us to fully understand its long-term effects, but it’s already been linked to depression and insomnia by several studies over the past couple of years, and has even been found to be more addictive than cigarettes. Parents are discussing ways to limit their teens’ screen time the way they used to discuss keeping them away from drugs.
Of course, drug and alcohol use comes with risks; addiction, drunk driving and overdose are serious dangers that should not be discounted. But being the parent of a teenager means either living with the constant possibility of risk, or raising an isolated, sheltered human who’s not prepared for life in the real world. Rebellious, sometimes dangerous behavior is an important part of being a teenager, and not one we should celebrate the loss of.
And it’s not just substance experimentation that’s falling by the wayside in favor of excessive social media use; teens’ sex lives are dwindling, too, with fewer 15-to-19-year-olds in 2015 reporting having had at least one sexual encounter than the same group in previous years, dating back to 1988.
It’s a sad world if teenagers have replaced sex, drugs and rock & roll with Snapchat, Instagram and One Direction. Substances and social media both have their downsides, but in this situation where one is replacing the other, face-to-face social interaction is being lost in the trade. Is avoiding some after-school beers really worth the sacrifice of social interaction during crucial, brain-developing years?