Social media has had a huge impact on the world, completely changing the way we communicate. In some ways, it can be said that it has improved things, allowing us to stay in touch with friends and relatives who we may not otherwise speak to. However, there is a dark side to social media sites, making it easy for people to be exposed to images of substance abuse. That’s why, when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse, social media has a lot to answer for, and why it can especially be a bad influence on teenagers.
The Link Between Drug Abuse and Social Media
Alcohol and drug abuse was commonly portrayed in a negative light in the traditional media of the past, and in the days before social networking sites, many people didn’t know much about substance abuse. Even the images in alcohol adverts were carefully censored to ensure they didn’t glamorise drinking.
However, if you’re a young person who logs into a social network, you’re likely to see drugs and alcohol portrayed in a positive, even aspirational way. Whether it’s someone enjoying a joint, or people doing shots, there are many subtle ways in which alcohol and drugs are shown as fun and exciting. It’s not just peers that teenagers see using these substances, many celebrities often show themselves binge drinking and partying. This makes drinking and drug abuse seem normal, and something that everyone does, perhaps even making them feel like they’re the only person who doesn’t do these things.
Another issue is that social media makes it much easier to buy drugs and to stay in touch with dealers. Before social media, people usually obtained drugs from friends of friends, but it’s now possible to buy drugs on social media, with coded adverts advertising illegal and prescription drugs, and even imported alcohol and cigarettes. Young people can easily use encrypted messengers to get in touch with dealers, making it less likely that their parents or the police will find out.
The issues above can be clearly seen when you look at the statistics about drug abuse and social media among young people. A study at Columbia University, carried out in 2011, found that teenagers who regularly used social media were more likely to smoke, use drugs or drink alcohol when compared to their peers who spent little or no time on social media.
Young people who were regular users of social media were up to five times more likely to smoke or buy cigarettes than other people in the same age group, three times more likely to use alcohol, and twice as likely to use substances such as marijuana. Peer pressure has long been common among teenagers, but on social media it’s intensified because it’s something that can be accessed 24/7, so the images have more of an effect.
Social Media Image
Another thing about social media is that it presents a very distorted view of peoples’ lives. Nobody’s life is perfect, but if you look at their Facebook or Instagram page, you see a carefully curated collection of their best images. This creates a fear of missing out, making it feel like everyone is doing more and having more fun than you. And on many social networks, it’s not just your friends that you see having fun, but also casual acquaintances, friends of friends, or even celebrities, many of who are posting about the great times they’re having using drugs or alcohol, making it seem desirable. Many of these posts include carefully frames, even photoshopped pictures too, adding to the glamorous angle.
Ease of Access
Many social media sites now offer buying and selling pages, whether it’s a Facebook group, marketplace listings, private Tumblr pages, or even WhatsApp groups. Billions of people use these services every day, and while most listings are mundane things, a little bit of searching will soon bring you across items such as prescription and illegal drugs. Social media outlets certainly have strict rules banning these sorts of transactions, but unfortunately, this can be difficult to moderate. Unless someone reports a group, it can easily go unnoticed, and even if the user is banned, they can easily create another free account and start again. In some cases, journalists found hidden Facebook pages, that could only be accessed by invitation, where drugs could be ordered to be delivered straight to someone’s door. This could be a very attractive prospect to a teenager who wants to buy alcohol or drugs but doesn’t want to go to a backstreet dealer.
Hidden in Plain Sight
The problem with tracking things like drug dealing online is that there’s often certain code words used which change all the time. While parents of teenagers can block certain shady looking sites, many drug deals happen in plain sight on social networks that may otherwise seem harmless. Teenagers are also more likely to know the slang involved that will bring them across drug listings. They understand the codes contained by the use of emojis, which can include the amount and cost of drugs, something which those not in the loop wouldn’t understand. Therefore, it’s easy for drug abuse on social media to slip under the radar.
The Dark Web
Many substance abusers also turn to the dark web in order to get hold of their substance of choice. A huge chunk of the content on the web isn’t accessible by mainstream search engines such as Google, and this content is often referred to as the deep or dark web. Here, criminal activity can thrive, and you can buy anything from credit card numbers to weapons, but illegal drugs are one of the most common purchases. A website known as Silk Road was active on the dark web from 2011 to 2013, and in this time, it had carried out 1.2 billion USD in transactions, many of which were illegal drugs. From this website, users could simply buy drugs the way you might buy an item on eBay or Amazon, having them shipped to their front door.
Unfortunately, many parents aren’t up to date with this sort of technology and may not even know that their teenager is using the dark web until they’ve developed a drug addiction. Because drugs are sent in plain packaging, any teenager with a few IT skills could potentially buy any illicit substances that they want.
There are, however, studies that show social media may not have a big effect on teenager’s drink and drug use. Some studies have shown that real life outside of social media is much more likely to have an impact on whether a young person develops an addiction. Factors such as having mental health problems or a parent with an addiction can be much more influential.
The amount of time that teenagers spend online, rather than socialising, also means they use fewer drugs and alcohol than young people in the 1990s. Surveys carried out on drug and alcohol use by young people in recent years has shown a long term decrease in the use of both substances in the UK.
Social networks can also be used as a force for good. The amount of time that teenagers spend on social networks makes them hugely influential, so anti-drug and alcohol campaigns can target the most vulnerable. Those who’ve suffered from addictions can share their negative stories, while influencers can be used to show positive images of life without drugs or alcohol. Content that’s humorous or interesting is easy to share and can go viral, making campaigns inexpensive.
An Addiction to Social Media
Social media itself can be a lot like a drug to a young brain, with likes and retweets being shown to have a pleasurable effect on the brain. This addiction can also have a downside, with studies showing it can contribute to depression, insomnia and isolation in teenagers. There could even be a link between these kinds of behaviours and substance abuse in later life, making teenagers more vulnerable to drug addiction or alcoholism.
So, what can parents do in these situations? Monitoring and controlling your teenager’s access to social media can be a good start, although a determined teen will still find a way to access these sites. Education and honest chats about drink and drug use are likely to be more effective, showing teenagers that the reality of addiction isn’t how it’s portrayed on social media. It’s also important for parents to look out for the early signs of drinking or drug abuse in their teenagers, allowing them to intervene and seek professional help if necessary.