Believe me, baby
Every generation got its own disease
And I've got mine
So help me please
Normally, only an act of Pandora could awaken my memories of such an obscure tune, but this week, "Every Generation" popped into my head while speaking with Dr. Scott Frank, the lead researcher on a study titled "Hyper-Texting & Hyper-Networking: A New Health Risk for Teens?" Frank serves as director of the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine's Masters of Public Health Program and director of health for the City of Shaker Heights, Ohio. In these roles, he'd heard parents express concerns about what effect technology -- particularly texting and social networking -- might be having on their teens.
Finding little existing research on the topic, Dr. Frank and his colleagues surveyed over 4,000 high school students in the Greater Cleveland area (Cuyahoga County) in the first effort to identify the health-related behaviors, attitudes, and mental/physical outcomes associated with "hyper-texting" and "hyper-networking." For purposes of the study, "hyper-texting" was defined as texting over 120 times per day while "hyper-networking" was defined as using a social network for more than three hours per day.
Digging into the data, Dr. Frank's team documented an overwhelming correlation between "hyper-texting/networking" and unhealthy or otherwise risky behavior by high school teens. Most notably, the study found that:
--350% more likely to have had sex
--200% more likely to have tried alcohol
--55% more likely to have been in a physical fight
--41% more likely to have tried illicit drugs
--40% more likely to have tried cigarettes
--340% more likely to have an eating disorder
--240% more likely to have attempted suicide
--94% more likely to have been in a physical fight
--84% more likely to have tried illicit drugs
--79% more likely to have tried alcohol
--69% more likely to have had sex
As Dr. Frank's team rightly notes in the study -- these numbers illustrate a strong correlation between hyper-texting/networking and at-risk behaviors but not causality. To determine if a causal relationship exists, further research will be needed -- research that Dr. Frank hopes to spearhead in 2011.
Even without determination of a causal relationship, the sheer magnitude of the at-risk behaviors exhibited by the "hyper-texters/networkers" should give us all pause. What crueler irony can there be than to discover that those teens who spend more than three hours per day "being social" on social networks are exponentially more likely to battle depression, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts than their peers who spend less time on social networks?
For parents, the message is clear -- you must establish ground rules for the use of technology by your teens. Whether or not causation is ever established, Dr. Frank's study shows that the less often teens text and use social networks, the less likely they are to engage in at-risk behaviors. This is not to say that such activities should be banned -- just that parents must establish and enforce reasonable parameters for their use.
For marketers, the message is to admit that we don't know what we don't know. Dr. Frank's team has only begun to chart the relationship between social technologies and at-risk behaviors within teen populations and he could use our help. If you're interested in learning more about Dr. Frank's work and potentially sponsoring future research, you can contact him at scott.frank[at]case.edu.
With further research, perhaps we'll all learn whether social technology is the Millennials' "own disease" or something far more innocuous that attracts overindulgent teens like instant messaging with Gen Xers or the telephone with Baby Boomers before it.