The eternal struggle to keep young people away from bad influences has moved to a new frontier: A research organization said Wednesday that teens who regularly log onto Facebook and other social networks are considerably more likely to smoke, drink or use marijuana than teens who don't visit the sites.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University found that teens who spend time on the networks are likely to see images of their peers drinking or using drugs -- images that could help to convince them that substance abuse is a normal, acceptable activity.
"We're not saying (social media) causes it," said Joseph Califano, the center's chairman. "But we are saying that this is a characteristic that should signal to (parents) that, well, you ought to be watching."
The findings are in keeping with a new wave of research into how social networks might affect teen decision-making. Several studies have suggested that Facebook, Myspace and other sites have created a new form of peer pressure, exposing young people to risky behaviors they could be tempted to emulate.
That conclusion rings true to some teens and parents.
"The Internet puts it in your head," said Dana Cichon, 16, a junior at Bartlett High School. "You think everyone else is having more fun than you."
But some experts warn that the research, like social media itself, is still in its infancy, and that the correlation between social networking and teen substance abuse could be disguising more relevant risk factors. Others contend that bad influences in the real world are much more potent.
What many experts agree on, though, is the importance of parents keeping tabs on their children's virtual activities.
"We've always had to be involved in kids' lives," Dave Gomel of Rockford's Rosecrance addiction treatment center. "This is just a different (method)."
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse does an annual survey to track teen attitudes on drinking, smoking and drug abuse, and this year it added questions about social media. It found that, compared to young people who avoid the sites, teens who visit regularly are twice as likely to use marijuana, three times more likely to drink alcohol and five times more likely to use tobacco.
Califano said the survey also found that about half of those who use social media have seen online pictures of teens getting drunk or high or passed out. Many saw the images before reaching the age of 14.
"I think there's no question there's a relation there," he said.
Other research has also suggested a link between social media and teen substance abuse. Dana Litt, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, did an experiment last year where she showed teens Facebook profiles that depicted adolescents drinking.
"I found that even in a fairly brief exposure ... individuals who saw these alcohol images said they were more willing to get drunk in the future and thought the type of person who got drunk was more favorable," she said.
While she cautioned that more research is needed -- something other than social media could turn out to be the true risk factor -- she said the sites might indeed have an outsize influence on what teens think is normal.
"Instead of simply knowing what your best friends do, you can see what your 500 Facebook friends do," she said. "I think that it might possibly change their ideas of how common behavior is."
Michael DeGrace, 17, a senior at York High School in Elmhurst, said he regularly sees Facebook posts about drinking and partying. And it's not just images, he added: Status updates that say things such as, "I can't remember what happened last night" get the message across as clearly as any photograph.
He said that sort of content could influence teens, especially younger ones.
"When someone constantly sees photos of parties, they sort of feel they're missing out," he said. "It sort of glorifies the whole thing. Especially if you haven't done it before, it could be a gateway to make them think it's all right."
Faraz Akram, 18, of Elgin, opened a Facebook account at his girlfriend's insistence but rarely uses it. He, too, believed that teens on social networks could be more easily swayed to use drugs and alcohol.
"If you do use Facebook, you care about what people think," said Akram, who will soon head to boot camp with the U.S. Marine Corps. "If you care what people think, you want to do what they do."
But Seth Gibson, 17, a senior at Hoffman Estates High School, was skeptical. He said peer pressure is greater in person, and when teens have the immediate opportunity to smoke or drink.
"If you're not easily influenced, you're not going to do it," he said. "A picture on Facebook isn't going to force anyone to do anything."
Myspace did not respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman for Facebook said the site removes content that promotes illegal drug use when its reviewers become aware of it. The company also referenced the work of Mike Males, a researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco who is unconvinced of the link between social media and teen substance abuse.
Males said the research thus far has not sufficiently controlled for other factors that could prove far more decisive, such as a parent's use of drugs or alcohol.
"I'm not discounting that media may play a part ... but you have to assess how important a factor that is when teenagers see drunken people in their real lives," Males told the Chicago Tribune. "That's something the studies don't address."
Ray Schellenberger of Lombard, a high school counselor and parent of two teens, said he required them to "friend" him when they signed up for Facebook, allowing him to keep an eye on what they post. Still, he's not sure that the power of social media is greater than peer pressure that arrives the old-fashioned way.
"If you're sitting at a cafeteria table and talking about what you did over the weekend, that's just as influential as what you're seeing on Facebook," he said.
(c) 2011, Chicago Tribune.
Visit the Chicago Tribune, www.chicagotribune.com/.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.