Study falsely reinforces fear for parents of online youth

This post is adapted from Larry Magid’s column that appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on September 5, 2011

by Larry Magid

Crimes Against Children Research Center Director David Finkelhor has talked andwritten about “juvenoia,” observing that some people assert that there are “features of the Internet that increase risk for young people above what they already encounter or what they encounter in other environments.”

We saw that a few years ago when the TV program “To Catch a Predator” spread fear that online children and teens were at increased risk of sexual molestation. A rash of news stories appeared about predator danger and politicians called for new child protection laws, yet every credible research project on the subject found no demonstrable increased predator risk, compared to the risk children face from people they know in the real world.

Alarming study

Now parents have something else to be afraid of. A recent report from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University said that teens ages 12-17 who watch certain TV shows or who spend time on social networking sites like Facebook and My Space, or who have seen pictures on social networking sites of kids getting drunk, passed out, or using drugs, are likelier to smoke, drink or use drugs. Or, as their news release colorfully put it, “free-for-all world of Internet expression, suggestive television programming and what-the-hell attitudes put teens at sharply increased risk of substance abuse.”

The survey found that youths 12 to 17 years old who spend time online in a typical day, even just a minute a day, are five times likelier to use tobacco, three times likelier to use alcohol and twice as likely to use marijuana.

The survey also found that teens who watch “reality shows like ‘Jersey Shore,’ ‘Teen Mom,’ or ’16 and Pregnant’ or any teen dramas like ‘Skins’ and ‘Gossip Girl,’ ” are more likely to use tobacco, alcohol and marijuana.

Correlation does not prove causation

The results of this survey might be alarming if it weren’t for the fact that teen use of social networking is the norm, not the exception. The study found that 70 percent of teens use social networking sites, so the risk of those awful behaviors attributed to the evils resulting from going online apply to seven out of 10 teens.

Although my skills are a bit rusty, I know a thing or two about surveys. I studied and taught survey research in my former academic career and designed and analyzed numerous surveys. One of the first things I taught my undergraduates was not to confuse correlation with causation. Even if it’s true that the kids who never use Facebook are less likely to abuses substances, the survey doesn’t tell us why that’s the case. There could be all sorts of other explanations, such as very strict parents. Or perhaps the same traits that cause that minority of kids to shy away from social networking are the same traits that make them less likely to use drugs, tobacco and alcohol.

And it’s not as if kids who do use social networking have a higher rate of use than kids in general. The percentages of online kids who were found to use drugs, tobacco and alcohol were about the same as those found in other national surveys where social networking use wasn’t a factor. If we are to draw any conclusions about this report, it would be that it says more about that 30 percent minority that’s not online. And as concerned as we should be about substance use, has anyone studied whether those kids might have equally troubling problems, including possibly social isolation?

Exaggerating danger doesn’t lower risk

What concerns me about this study is that it raises fears that are both unsubstantiated and not actionable. What are we supposed to do, turn back time and force our kids to abandon Facebook? The reality is that social networking is a part of most of our lives and what we need to do is not pull away from the technology, but make sure that kids (and adults too) know how to use it appropriately. We all need to learn to make our own conscious decisions and not be manipulated by what we see online, in the media or in advertising.

The other problem with fear-mongering reports is that they often don’t change behavior. A seminal paper on fear messaging by Kim White at Michigan State University found that “when assessing threat, the audience considers severity, or the seriousness of it, as well as their susceptibility, or the likelihood that it will happen to them.” In other words, kids who use social networking are likely to ignore the results of this study just as they ignore stupid and potentially dangerous things they find online.

Kids need guidance and education, but they don’t need to be bubble-wrapped. And parents need to take a deep breath and avoid panicking every time someone comes up with a scary study or an alarming news report.

More resources

My co-director Anne Collier two part series (part one and part two) on “juvenoia”and Anne’s analysis of the CASA youth survey

My slide presentation “Do fear and exaggeration increase risk?”

Family Online Safety Institute’s Stehen Balkham’s take on the study, Be Afraid, Very Afraid

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