Social Networking and Teen Drug Use: Tremendous Potential to Help -- and Harm

May 9, 2012
Arline Kaplan

Preliminary research indicates that use of online social networking sites, such as Facebook, by adolescents who are receiving treatment for substance use disorders can negatively affect their care

Preliminary research indicates that use of online social networking sites, such as Facebook, by adolescents who are receiving treatment for substance use disorders can negatively affect their care.

During a new research briefing at this week’s APA conference, David Tran, a candidate for both a Doctor of Medicine and Masters Degree in Public Policy at UCLA, shared the results of his study that analyzed exposure to drug-related cues on social networking sites and their effects on adolescents in substance abuse treatment.

“Online social networking has expanded exponentially in the last few years and its use has also grown substantially among adolescents,” he said. 

While exposure to environmental cues associated with drug use (people, places, and things) is a known risk factor for drug relapse among individuals receiving substance abuse treatment, he said, the extent to which online social networking might be a source of exposure to drug cues among youth in treatment was unknown. 

To explore the possible impact, Tran administered a 20-question survey to 37 youth, who were receiving substance abuse treatment at a behavioral health services center in the Lincoln Heights area of East Los Angeles. The participants were primarily Latino, aged 12 to 18 years (average age 15.5 years); there were nearly equal numbers of males and females. Most came from low-income families (Los Angeles County or Medicaid usually financed their substance abuse treatment). Regarding their substance use, 89% reported marijuana as their drug of choice, followed by Ecstasy, and methamphetamine. 

Nearly all (92%) engaged in online social networking; the majority used Facebook. Many (44%) said they posted drug-related content on social networking sites, and 94% said their friends did. Additionally, 97% reported their social networking friends used drugs.

Of greatest concern, Tran said, is that 66% (77% of girls and 53% of boys) reported that drug-related content on Facebook, MySpace, or Twitter made them feel like they wanted to use drugs (p = 0.169).
“While these are preliminary data, they indicate that online social network sites may negatively influence treatment outcomes for adolescents.”

On the flipside, he added, only 22% reported that they posted or accessed recovery-related content on social networking sites. The low rate of recovery-oriented content is a missed opportunity to use the power of social media positively, said Tran. “Our next step is to implement an intervention at the substance abuse treatment center to use along with their treatment plan,” he said. “We are planning to establish a Facebook group as an intervention. In this way, we can engage youth and enable them to access educational information anytime and anywhere.

”The Facebook group would provide positive social support. Some studies of Alcoholics Anonymous have shown that social support increases treatment retention rates,” he said.

The Facebook group might also change the composition of the teens’ social network by decreasing the number of their online contacts who are drug users, he explained. Additionally, it could increase the teens’ feelings of self-efficacy-feeling that they really can quit, that they do have resources for help and that there is support for them out there.

“We plan to train peer educators to assist with the Facebook group,” he said. 

Tran did not support attempts to block the teens’ access to social networking sites, since the “kids will find some way to use these sites, be it at school or home.”

Jeffrey Borenstein, MD, Medical Director of Holliswood Hospital in New York City, host of the television show “Healthy Minds,” and chair of the APA Council on Communications, hosted the briefing and commented on Tran’s research.

“Social media, I think, has tremendous potential to help -- and potential to harm,” he said. “We want to make use of social media in positive ways, such as peer support, education, and reaching out to young people at risk for chemical dependency with the technology they are already accustomed to using.”