Study: Social Media Makes Kids Sick, Bad
Scarcely a week goes by without the news media circulating a questionable, but highly reportable, study purporting to document the ills caused by social media. This week is no exception: the latest entry comes from Case Western Reserve's School of Medicine, with a study warning that excessive use of social media -- specifically, "hypertexting" (sending more than 120 messages per school day) and "hypernetworking" (spending more than three hours per day on sites like Facebook) -- is linked to dangerous health problems and antisocial behavior in teens.
Among the Case Western findings, teens who hypertext are twice as likely to have tried alcohol; 3.5 times more likely to have had sex; 40% more likely to have tried cigarettes; 41% more likely to have used illicit drugs; 43% more likely to be binge drinkers; 55% more likely to have been in a physical fight; and 90% more likely to report four or more sexual partners. Hypernetworkers were 60% more likely to have four or more sexual partners; 62% more likely to have tried cigarettes; 69% more likely to be binge drinkers; 69% more likely to have had sex; 79% more likely to have tried alcohol; 84% more likely to have used illicit drugs; and 94% more likely to have been in a physical fight.
According to lead researcher Scott Frank, "The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers. This should be a wake-up call for parents to not only help their children stay safe by not texting and driving, but by discouraging excessive use of the cell phone or social websites in general."
This would seem to suggest a causal link between texting and social networking and these negative outcomes -- and Frank speculated in an interview with CNN (but not the study itself) that all the texting and social media use enables "high-tech peer pressure." But he also concedes that the study "does not demonstrate cause and effect," which seems to contradict that statement. In fact, he adds: "We are not saying texting causes these behaviors." So what are we saying? Well, it's kind of ambiguous: "We can recognize that these kinds of connections ... may be facilitating or enabling these kinds of behaviors, but we certainly can't think of (the online connections) as causing them."
"Facilitating" versus "causing" -- perhaps a minor distinction, at first glance. But once you accept that texting and social networks aren't actually causing these behaviors, they become just two more members of a group of correlated behaviors which may describe -- but can't explain -- a certain kind of personality, more prone to engage in risky and self-destructive activity.
Once again, I would argue that excessive social media use and texting are just symptoms of social ills that already existed for some time. It's well known that adolescents, struggling with unstable identities and mood swings, are more likely to engage in self-destructive behavior. I believe behaviors like "hypertexting" and "hypernetworking" are closely related to the sense of incompleteness and insecurity which bedevils many teens (not to mention a good number of adults): like alcohol, tobacco, drugs and sex, they serve to occupy a restless, wandering, attention-seeking personality, which believes itself totally unable to find peace and tranquility on its own terms.
I should also point out that the Case Western study is simply a snapshot of teen behaviors at one moment in time. It doesn't examine changes in these behaviors over time, making it even harder to draw any conclusions about correlation versus causation. On the other hand, many indices for negative behaviors among teens have remained flat over the last decade -- coinciding with the social media boom. The proportion of teens ages 15-19 having sex before marriage has remained stable at 42% from 2002-2010, according to National Survey of Family Growth conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile the proportion of eighth graders who believe smoking marijuana regularly is harmful remained flat at around 70% from 2002-2009, according to a national study by the University of Michigan.