‘Research’ aimed at fueling fear: Prime example

THE takeaway from the National Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse’s latest study: how media literacy is more important than ever!

By Anne Collier

There’s research and then there’s “research.” Let’s take a look at the latter: the very credible-sounding “National Survey on American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVI: Teens and Parents,” linking social media use to drug abuse in teens. How could the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University (CASA) publish a commentary and call it research? I can think of no better example of why it’s important not to believe, much less fear, everything you read about social media.

“Woefully few details are provided on their statistical methodology, and highly alarmist and moralizing language is used throughout. I would not regard this as a serious work of science,” wrote psychology professor Christopher Ferguson at Texas A&M in an email after reading the study. He offers some historical context: “This is exactly what happened with video game research, and now that fears of video games are beginning to (slowly) subside and the research exposed as highly problematic, it’s not surprising to see a shift to an even newer media. This is more or less what is predicted by moral panic theory. People eventually figure out the past ‘boogeyman’ wasn’t such a big deal after all, but rather than learn from past mistakes, simply shift the fear-mongering and blame-game to the next new media.”

About the flaws

So what’s wrong with the study, specifically? Author and researcher Mike Males, PhD, of YouthFacts.org mentions two key credibility killers: “The CASA study didn’t control for age or parental habits.” For the age issue, here’s what Males means: “To assess social media influences, the substance use of social-media-using 12-year-olds must be compared to those of non-social-media-using 12-year-olds of comparable gender and demographics, 17-year-olds with 17-year-olds, and so forth. I can find nothing in CASA’s method to indicate they made such adjustments.” On the “parental habits” issue, he writes, “CASA not only did not control for parental habits as substantiated predictors of teen drug/alcohol use, it does not even include other crucial factors such as living in divorced or separated families, histories of violence and abuse, adult drug and alcohol use within communities, etc. For example, the National Household Survey shows teens in North Dakota are nearly 3 times more likely to drink than those in Utah (paralleling adult patterns)…. Without strict multi-factor controls—especially for age, parental drug/alcohol use, family factors, and individual histories—that are absent from this study, CASA should not even be implying causality.”

Study shows low impact, actually

Interestingly, the data published in the report contradict the authors’ conclusions. Males writes that the survey “actually shows media influences are quite small.” For example, while 70% of teens use social media sites, just 10% of them have ever used tobacco (even once) – that is, 7% of all teens. Even accepting the unfounded notion that social media use caused all of these 7% to smoke, the other 93% are not so influenced. Likewise, even if watching ‘suggestive teen programming’ causes all teenage marijuana use, fewer than 5% of teens would be affected. In many cases, findings are based on responses from a few dozen of the 1,037 teens surveyed.”

And in another inconsistency between findings and takeaways, the authors say they found “no significant difference in substance use among teens spending 1 to 30 minutes, 31 to 90 minutes or more than 90 minutes on a social networking site in a typical day.” That would indicate little influence from social media, right? Males writes, “If Facebook use causes drug use, we would expect that a teen who spends 2+ hours on Facebook every day would drink and use drugs significantly more than one who spends 45 minutes a day, who in turn would be more likely to use substances than a teen who spends only 10 minutes a day on Facebook. Yet, CASA found this is not the case. This adds to the suspicion that a multi-factorial analysis would show that social media use in and of itself is a trivial factor and that parents should not be stricken by ‘Facebook fear’.”

So about all this study illustrates is the importance of taking scary headlines and “conclusions” with a grain of salt – the importance of media literacy – and how it’s needed more than ever in the middle of a major media shift! Now to that vital skill we need to add social literacy – critical thinking about what we share, produce, and upload as much as what we see, consume, and download – for more complete safety and success in a social media environment!

Related links

* In a talk entitled “Do Fear and Exaggeration Increase Risk” my ConnectSafely.org co-director Larry Magid points to (peer-reviewed) research showing that the CASA report could well have the exact opposite of its apparent intended effect. Larry also points out an alternative that has been proven to work in anti-addiction work: the social-norms approach.
* Among other things, a thoughtful Time commentary points out how CASA itself uses imagery of substance-abusing youth, engaging in the very practice it says is harming teens in media.
* “Be afraid of Facebook, be very afraid” is the ironic headline on a Huffington Post commentary about the CASA report by Stephen Balkam of the Family Online Safety Institute.
* “It’s another correlational study in which the reader is obviously supposed to assume causality,” according to a Los Angeles Times editorial about the CASA report.
* “Why technopanics are bad” from me back in 2009

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