By Harrison Howe
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'A Picture Worth a Thousand Words'
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), more than 50% of teens visit a social media site at least once per day (and more than 20% log on to these sites more than ten times per day!), while the Kaiser Family Foundation states that 75% of 7 - 12th graders have created a social media profile. What's more, 75% of adolescents have cell phones, and 25% of those individuals use them to access social media sites (as reported through a 2009 Common Sense Media Poll).
And in an alarming recent study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, teens using these sites are more likely - in some cases as much as five times more likely - to smoke cigarettes, drink or smoke marijuana.
Peer pressure. What once required physical presence can now be felt digitally, according to teens and their parents. Pictures of teens involved in drinking or getting high that are posted on Facebook and other sites could, some say, influence others to try the activities depicted in the photos. The CASA study reports that about 50% of teens, many of them under the age of 14, have viewed such photos on Facebook, MySpace or similar sites, and as many as 90% say they have seen these types of pictures by the time they turned 15.
Joseph Califano Jr., president and founder of CASA, said in a press release in August that the link between pictures of alcohol and drug abuse and increased risk of this behavior in teens 'offers grotesque confirmation' of the old saying: 'a picture is worth a thousand words.'
'When someone constantly sees photos of parties, they sort of feel they're missing out,' Illinois high school senior Michael DeGrace told eSchoolNews.com in August 2011. 'It sort of glorifies the whole thing.' High school junior Dana Cichon echoed: 'The Internet puts it in your head. You think everyone else is having more fun than you.'
Some argue that the studies are not entirely accurate and do not include other factors or influences, such as parental behavior. If, for instance, a teen sees his parent or parents frequently drinking or becoming involved in drug use, chances are that this exposure will play a much larger part in the child's own behavior than simply viewing it on Facebook.
Still, the impact of social media cannot and should not be ignored. Those who acknowledge the findings of the CASA and similar studies stress that parents need to become more involved in what their children are doing online, to discuss proper online behavior and to set rules about social networking use. The CASA study shows that 64% of parents currently monitor their children's social networking activities. Dr. Gwenn O'Keeffe, co-author of the AAP report, states: 'Parents need to understand these technologies so they can relate to their children's online world - and comfortably parent in that world.'
Facebook and other social media sites can be sources of bullying and conflict; find out how and if schools can get involved when hurtful and inappropriate messages are posted by students.