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New research: texting, social networking can lead to risky behavior by teens
January 4, 2011 - Scott Muska
Is technology really an addiction? If so, is it what they call a "gateway addiction?"
For years, many (read: moms, researchers) have hypothesized that alcohol, tobacco and marijuana are a "gateway drug," which is to say they might increase the odds for users to eventually experiment with the harder, more harmful stuff. These days, technology is considered by many to be somewhat addictive (albeit not officially, yet), especially among adolescents and teens, and some recently released information from the American Public Health Association suggests that frequent use of technology can lead to kids getting into some harder, more harmful stuff: activities that are widely considered to be dangerous, especially when undertaken by youths.
The research, which was done by a group at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, indicated teens who send more than 120 text messages a day (dubbed "hyper-texters") were more prone to have involved themselves with all types of bad behavior. They were more likely to have tried booze, were two times more likely to binge drink the booze, were 40 percent more likely to have tried cigarettes, 43 percent more likely to be binge drinkers, 41 percent more likely to have used illicit drugs, 55 percent more likely to have been in a physical fight, nearly three-and-a-half times more likely to have had sex and 90 percent more likely to report four or more sexual partners. The same research indicated that teenagers who spend more than three hours per school day on social networking ("hyper-networkers") websites had higher odds ratios for stress, depression, suicide, substance use, fighting, poor sleep and poor accademics, along with most of the aforementioned issues listed for hyper-texters.
Researchers surveyed 4,257 high school students in Cuyahoga County, OH, and reported 19.8 percent and 11.5 percent were hyper-texters , while 19.8 percent were hyper-networkers.
Dr. Scott Frank, a professor at Case Western University and leader of the study said in a statement he released that the studies should be a "wake-up" call for parents who are letting their kids overdo it on the technological fixes. "The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers," he warned.
I haven't reached Frank yet to ask him what he feels the connection between technological overuse and certain unsavory behaviors might be, and none were mentioned in the statement. John Grohol, the CEO of Psych Central, met Frank's findings with scathing skepticism, and wrote about it in a piece on the company's website. He said there is no causative relationship between texting and unhealthy teen behaviors, then proceeded to call the information "pure crap." In bold print. Grohol called the study's data sloppy at best and unethical at worst, and said Frank "should be ashamed of himself (and learn Research 101 methods)," which could almost be classified as Psych smack talk.
In Grohol's eyes, all the research showed was that teens who have more sex than others and who are more likely to try behaviors that are considered risky also text more than the typical kid. He thinks that correllation may be because they have a more active social life.
Of course, the jury is still out on whether or not technology should even be considered an addiction, and because of this there is no cut and dried definition that immediately classifies somebody as a tech addict. Researchers have also not been able to pinpoint just what might give kids a high from using technology, and an immediate high is paramount when describing most addictions, according to Christine Zernick, program coordinator for Altoona Regional Health System's Behavioral Health Services.
She said she thinks some youngins are addicted to technology, and she's seen it take off in the past five years or so, but she isn't ready to put it on the same level as alcohol and drug addiction. She said she couldn't even comment on Frank's findings, since she'd never heard of a link between technology and the listed behaviors.
John O'Neill, a therapist who specializes in therapy for myriad addictions and is based in Cypress, Tex., said he's seen teen technology attachment get more and more to the point where it looks similar to other types of addictions, whether people are comfortable with classifying it as one or not. Either way, if parents are worried, he said they need to promote a model of their own behavior that doesn't overuse technology.
He remembers an old anti-drug PSA from the 80's where a teenage boy's father confronts him about his marijuana use. the father bursts into his room brandishing a box containing the reefer, and confronts him about where he got it and how he learned to use it. The boy says "From you, alright?!"
"Parents have to look at their own behaviors first, and make sure they're not trying to tell the child that what they're doing is problematic if they're doing the same thing," O'Neill said.