Less teen drug use tied to tech toys?

Posted: March 20, 2017 at 1:50 a.m.

Amid an opioid epidemic, the rise of deadly synthetic drugs and the widening legalization of marijuana, a curious bright spot has emerged in the youth drug culture: U.S. teenagers are growing less likely to try or regularly use drugs, including alcohol.

With minor fits and starts, the trend has been building for a decade, with no clear understanding as to why.

Some experts theorize that falling cigarette-smoking rates are cutting into a key gateway to drugs, or that anti-drug education campaigns, long a largely failed enterprise, have finally taken hold.

But researchers have begun to ponder an intriguing question: Are teenagers using drugs less in part because they are constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones?

The possibility is worth exploring, they say, because use of smartphones and tablets has exploded over the same period that drug use has declined.

This correlation does not mean that one phenomenon is causing the other, but scientists say interactive media appear to play to similar impulses as drug experimentation, including sensation-seeking and the desire for independence.

Or it might be that gadgets simply absorb a lot of time that could be used for other pursuits, including partying.

Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, says she plans to begin research on the topic in the next few months, and will convene a group of scholars in April to discuss it. The possibility that smartphones were contributing to a decline in drug use by teenagers, Volkow said, was the first question she asked when she saw the agency's most recent survey results. The long-term survey, "Monitoring the Future" (monitoringthefuture.org) is an annual government-funded survey of high school students and young adults that follows some through age 55. It aims to measure drug use by teenagers.

In 2016, the sample included about 45,500 students at 372 public and private schools nationwide. It found that past-year use of illicit drugs other than marijuana was at the lowest level in the 40-year history of the project for eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders.

Use of marijuana is down over the past decade for eighth- and 10th-graders even as social acceptability is up, the study found. Although marijuana use has risen among 12th-graders, the use of cocaine, hallucinogens, Ecstasy and crack are all down, too, while LSD use has remained steady.

Even as heroin use has become an epidemic among adults in some communities, it has fallen among high school students over the past decade, the study found.

Those findings are consistent with other studies showing steady declines over the past decade in drug use by teenagers after years of ebbs and flows. Volkow said this period was also notable because declining use patterns were cutting across groups -- "boys and girls, public and private school, not driven by one particular demographic," she said.

"Something is going on," Volkow added.


Silvia Martins, a substance abuse expert at Columbia University who has already been exploring how to study the relationship of internet and drug use among teenagers, called the theory "highly plausible."

"Playing video games [and] using social media, that fulfills the necessity of sensation seeking, their need to seek novel activity," Martins said, but added of the theory: "It still needs to be proved."

Indeed, there are competing theories and some confounding data. While drug use has fallen among youths from 12 to 17, it hasn't declined among college students, said Sion Kim Harris, co-director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Boston Children's Hospital.

Harris said she had not considered technology's role and would not rule it out given the appeal of the devices, but said she was "hopeful" drug use by teenagers had decreased because education and prevention campaigns were working.

ActiveStyle on 03/20/2017