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Teaching Part 3: Dangerous Social Networks

Various Social Media Icons

This post relates less directly to teaching, but I know that many of us are interested in what effect social networking may be having on our students. As kids spend more time developing friendships in the age of MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter, what will they be like when we see them in class with all of these things turned off (for the most part)? A recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University looked at 12 to 17 year olds. They made the claim that those who spend time one social networking sites are more likely to smoke, drink, and use drugs. At The Daily, Trevor Butterworth offers a response which questions those conclusions on what are essentially statistical grounds.

The problem with CASA’s argument is that the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey (funded by the National Institutes of Health) shows that kids are doing all of these things much less than they did before there was social networking, or the Internet, or even personal computers for the masses. The trends for alcohol use and binge drinking (along with attitudes about whether both are good or bad, and perceptions of how easy it is to procure alcohol) all show that kids are in a much better place today than in the ’70s and early ’80s. It’s not a perfect place – but if the correlation between the rise of social networking over the past decade and substance abuse was causal surely the trends would be getting worse rather than better?

As for marijuana use, there has been an uptick, but one not nearly high enough to bring us back to the stoned age of the 1970s. Marijuana also no longer carries the cultural stigma it once did, but it’s important to remember that this coincides with significant social and political agitation for both legalized medical and private use, which has possibly changed the overall climate of social acceptability. Perhaps we can “blame” our changes in social attitudes, rather than our technology, for this small surge of pot smoking.

There’s also the availability factor. Marijuana is seen as especially easy to get for most kids. As for cocaine, use among 12th graders has plummeted since the late ’80s, as has the perception that it is relatively easy to procure. Cigarette smoking is also in long-term decline, with sharp increases in perceptions of risk and disapproval.

CASA’s founder Joseph Califano tries to explain this unhelpful correlation away in an interview with the Chicago Tribune: “We’re not saying [social media] causes it,” he said. “But we are saying that this is a characteristic that should signal to [parents] that, well, you ought to be watching.”

Yeah, but given the percentage of kids engaged in social networking, you might as well tell parents to watch out for eating meat as a “signal” for pot smoking. Social networking is such a widespread practice that it can easily mask other, more critical factors, such as the possibility that kids who are interested in drinking or drugs are more likely to engage in social networking, or that kids who suffer parental neglect may turn to substance abuse and spend more time online.

This sounds like a class discussion I would have about the problems with observational studies: they cannot prove causation. Also, we must be especially careful about confounding/lurking variables. At any rate, it may be that social media and social networking may not be the end of civilized students. At least not if we help them learn to manage it appropriately. This seems like a good place for teachers and parents to work together, doesn’t it?


See previous posts in the series here and here.

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