Are Teens Replacing One Drug With Another?

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News that today’s teens are drinking and taking drugs less than ever can’t be anything but good news, right?

Yes, obviously the drop in teen substance abuse, as reported by the University of Michigan’s latest Monitoring the Future study,  is a very good thing.

But the question remains, why? Are today’s adolescents more risk-averse? Are they making better, wiser choices? Or, might they perhaps be so engaged with technology that they’re less likely to rebel in the ways previous generations did?

Speaking with USA Today, Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said that media and technology may be keeping kids at home, where they’re less likely to have the opportunity to drink, smoke or do drugs.

Volkow frames this hypothesis in a positive light, saying, “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. It’s wonderful to see, but understanding it will be very important because then we can try to emulate it, be proactive and try to sustain it.”

But Rolling Stone reporter Lilly O’Donnell suggests that the substitution of one risky behavior for another that’s more quietly addictive may not be such an unmitigated social boon. She writes:

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.

She adds, “… 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.”

It will probably take more years of observation and research to know if this replacement hypothesis really holds water. But at least anecdotally, it definitely makes a certain kind of sense. And it highlights the changing issues and concerns that parents today need to focus on as we strive to raise healthy, emotionally well-adjusted children.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Chuck Anziulewicz More than 1 year ago
As a counselor, I am becoming dismayed, if not downright alarmed, at how digital devices are damaging human interpersonal communication. The same gadgets that were supposed to keep us better connected are in fact further isolating us from one another. Even a simple voice phone call is considered to intimate for many people. 

Do you know what is being lost here? Non-verbal communication. Most researchers believe that non-verbal communication accounts for over half of the information that is shared between human beings, and yet all of that is being lost in the digital realm. And NO, emojis are not adequate substitutes for facial expressions.

Another thing I find alarming is that people will say things to one another online that they would NEVER say to one another in person. It's a lot easier to shame someone or bully someone online, hiding behind the anonymity of a Twitter handle, than to do it face-to-face.

For these reasons and others, I do not carry a smartphone with me. I've seen what they do to people, and I don't want to be like that.