American teens who spend time on Facebook and other social media sites are at increased risk of smoking, drinking and drug use, a survey suggests.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University conducted the back-to-school survey of 1,006 teens who answered questions about their use of social media, TV viewing habits and substance abuse.

The findings suggested that compared those aged 12 to 17 who spend no time on social networking sites in a typical day, teens who do were:

Half of respondents  who said they've seen pictures of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs on Facebook and other social networking sites first saw such pictures when they were 13 years of age or younger. 

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It's not being old-fashioned for parents to limit and monitor their teens' use of social media like Facebook, a youth addictions psychiatrist says.

"The relationship of social networking site images of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs and of suggestive teen programming to increased teen risk of substance abuse offers grotesque confirmation of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words," said Joseph A. Califano, Jr., the founder of the centre and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare.

"The time has come for those who operate and profit from social networking sites like Facebook to deploy their technological expertise to curb such images and to deny use of their sites to children and teens who post pictures of themselves and their friends drunk, passed out or using drugs," he added in a statement.

Drunken images

Social media allows people to be exposed to images and stories of substance abuse at a younger age, said Dr. Shimi Kang, a youth addictions psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia who works with those aged 12 to 24.

Since young people are highly sensitive to what their peers are doing, seeing many images of drinking and substance abuse and partying may lead them to think the behaviour is normal.

"A scenario could be a young 13-year-old girl who spends three hours on Facebook," Kang said. 

Teens' TV viewing and substance abuse

The survey also asked teens whether they watched reality shows like Jersey Shore and Teen Mom or teen dramas such as Gossip Girl.

A third of all teens — including 46 per cent of girls and 19 per cent of boys — said they watched such programming.

Compared with teens who do not watch programming, teens who typically watch one or more such programs per week were:

  • Twice as likely to use tobacco.
  • Almost twice as likely to use alcohol.
  • More than one-and-a-half times more likely to use marijuana.
  • Twice as likely to be able to get marijuana within a day or less.
  • More than one-and-a-half times more likely to be able to get prescription drugs without a prescription within a day or less.

"More than half of the stuff she's going to be reading and seeing is going to involve substance abuse of people within her age group. If the cool girls or the popular people are posting this, she's going to believe number one, it's normal and number two, that's acceptable."

Alcohol advertising on social media is another potential factor.

Parental controls are another aspect of the association between social media use and substance abuse. Moms and dads who do not allow any use of social media may also have zero tolerance towards drugs and alcohol, Kang said. And youth who are less involved in extracurricular activities are more likely to use social media.

Canada's anti-drug strategy suggests that parents be knowledgeable, communicate with their teens, and watch for signs of changes.

Setting limits on teens' use of social media is important, Kang said.

"In my 10 years of practice, what young people have told me is when their parents limit things in a healthy way, they find that they're able to better maintain a balance," she said. "Don't be afraid to limit and monitor the social media use. It's not being old- fashioned or out of touch. It's the same parenting principles that we'd apply to anything."

Kang also advised youth to recognize that social media like Facebook and Twitter aren't real life, but a filtered image with benefits and drawbacks that need to be recognized.

While the study was well designed, it draws associations and not a cause-and-effect relationship between social media use and substance abuse, Kang said. She noted the findings likely would apply in Canada, with two exceptions: difference in legal drinking ages and slight variations in ethnocultural demographics between the two countries.

With files from CBC's Amina Zafar