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Flash! Facebook causes teen drinking! (Until you read the fine print)

August 25, 2011 |  6:00 am

Facebook

Teens who use social media are five times likelier to use tobacco, three times likelier to drink alcohol and twice as likely to try marijuana, says Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse after conducting a survey of 12- to 17-year-olds. The authors try mightily to tie this to the images youngsters see of others misbehaving on such sites.

It could be true, but nothing in the study as printed actually shows as much, or even that social networking produces miscreant teens.

It's another correlational study in which the reader is obviously supposed to assume causality, a no-no in the world of studies. In other words, just because two things seem to occur together doesn't mean one caused the other. It could be the second thing that caused the first. Or maybe a third factor caused both. At one time, public health experts thought that eating ice cream might cause polio; they noticed that the number of polio cases was higher in places with greater ice cream consumption. It took awhile to figure out that polio increased in hot months, when children played together in often unsanitary conditions. And guess what people ate more of during hot weather?

But back to Columbia in the summer of 2011. The study compared teens who used any sort of social media at all, even for a couple of minutes a day, with those who abstained.

It's unusual for young people not to use social media; in fact, only 30% of the respondents never let their face look upon the likes of Facebook or Twitter. And perhaps it was that very behavior that kept them away from smoking, drinking and drugs. But is it possible other factors were involved?

The study doesn't tell us which of the respondents stayed off social media. It seems quite possible, though, that they were more likely to be 12 (which we'll include as teens, since the study does) than, say, 16. Could it be that younger adolescents, the middle-school crowd, are also less likely to drink and the like?

What other differences might there be? I don't really know, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the non-tweeters come from more protective families, or that they are less likely to follow the group fads. They might be more serious students who don't take time for such frivolity; they might tend to be more religious. Any of these might make a teen less likely to engage in troublesome behavior, and a combination might be a pretty potent group.

In other words, it could be that teens who use social media are pulled more into drinking, smoking and toking. But it also is possible that teens who are less likely to engage in those behaviors are also less likely to use social media.

Or there could be another, outside factor. The ice cream?

RELATED:

Facebook's face problem

The siren song of Google+

Facebook, I just can't quit you

Facing up to the darker side of Facebook

--Karin Klein 

Photo: Thierry Roge / Reuters

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