Friday 18 October 2019

How our teens are getting 'high' online - as they ditch the booze and cigarettes

New research is being set up to look into whether a drop in drug and alcohol use among teenagers could be explained by the addictive nature of smartphones and their stimulating effect on the brain. Stock photo
New research is being set up to look into whether a drop in drug and alcohol use among teenagers could be explained by the addictive nature of smartphones and their stimulating effect on the brain. Stock photo
Sinead Moriarty

Sinead Moriarty

Are smartphones taking the place of cigarettes and alcohol in the lives of teenagers?

New research is being set up to look into whether a drop in drug and alcohol use among teenagers could be explained by the addictive nature of smartphones and their stimulating effect on the brain.

A whopping 96pc of Irish 15 to 35-year-olds own a smartphone and 90pc admit to checking their phone the minute they wake up, 87pc check their phones while on public transport and 84pc while watching TV.

Irish teens are never far from their phones, with half admitting to not being able to go longer than two hours without using the internet.

For all teenagers, the top priority when arriving home from school is to communicate with their friends (yes, the ones they have just spent all day with) via social media.

But at least they're texting friends and not lighting up a cigarette and smoking out the bathroom window. Fewer Irish teenagers are now drinking and smoking, according to the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs (ESPAD) 2015 report, which looked at the behaviour of 15 to 16-year-olds.

Use of alcohol within the previous 30 days and the rate of heavy episodic drinking were less common among Irish respondents, compared with the average in the survey.

Some 35pc of Irish teenagers reported drinking alcohol during the previous 30 days, compared with a European average of 48pc.

The same was true for cigarette use during the preceding 30 days, which stood at 13pc among Irish respondents, compared with the European average of 21pc.

In the US, rates of teenage drinking and smoking have also fallen and are currently at their lowest rate in 40 years.

In the UK, levels of smoking and drinking among 11 to 15-year-olds have more than halved over the last 10 years.

What are the causes of this change of behaviour in teens? Could it really be down to the explosion in mobile phone use?

Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, is keen to find out more and she has organised to meet with a group of academics to discuss whether the use of smartphones may have contributed to this decline in smoking and drinking.

Ms Volkow describes interactive media as an alternative reinforcer to drugs of all kinds, because teens can get 'high' when playing games and interacting with friends on social media.

You only have to look around to see how addicted kids are to their phones these days. They barely look up from them at all. Their lives and moods are almost completely controlled by their smartphones.

A teen who gets tons of likes and positive comments under a post feels a huge high.

Their phone can be like a portable dopamine pump, making them feel really good about themselves. Instant gratification is now only a few clicks away.

The danger is that just as drinking and smoking can become quickly addictive, so can mobile phone use.

Teens have become obsessed with how they are perceived on social media and how many 'likes' they get for a post or image.

Just as getting a good reaction from peers gives the teen a huge high, so can negative comments or a lack of likes give them a terrible low.

As yet, there is very little definitive evidence to show whether drink and cigarettes have been replaced by the phone.

We may discover that it's in fact the anti-smoking and drinking campaigns that have caused the decline in smoking and drinking, or the fact that teens now are more focused on health and how they look than ever before.

Whatever the reasons for the decline in drinking and smoking, it's good news, and if it is proven to be because of phone use, then parents may feel less anxious about the amount of time their teens spend on their phones.

But before parents relax their control, let's not forget that there are many downsides to the smartphone too, with online gambling becoming a huge problem with teens these days.

The ESPAD report found that more than one in 10 Irish teenagers now gambles for money frequently. Then you have the accessibility to porn and some very disturbing adult content.

While it's wonderful to know that teens are cutting out cigarettes and drink, what they choose to do instead may not necessarily be any less damaging.

We may end up wishing they were having a beer and a cigarette after all.

Irish Independent

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