We at Terra Nova have been obsessed with avatars drawn from fantasy and science fiction: The Elves and Aliens often found in games. The Facebook page is an avatar too - an idealized creation of self. Facebook avatars represent a much broader swath of the population than game avatars. They're also less restricted, in that you can build them however you want. FB avatars are no less restricted than game avatars in another sense, though: They must make sense within the lore and backstory of the world. In games, it's a fantasy or science lore. With FB, the "backstory" is the context of ordinary daily life. FB avatars are ordinary people living in the 21st century, but they are those lucky people who are always socializing with cool people, always thinking cool thoughts, always going cool places, always doing cool things. Nobody puts up a picture of himself as an exhausted, lonely parent harrying his toddlers into bed. FB avatars are a biased sample of life.
The bias has some known directions, too. For example, FB avatars are biased toward drug consumption. FB avatars are often seen partying. Many is the FB picture of a young man or woman chugging something.
Interesting then that a study shows a large positive correlation among 12-17 year olds between FB time and drinking and smoking and weed. Among teens who use FB at least once a day (70% of the sample), 10 percent smoke cigarettes. Among the other 30%, only 2 percent smoke. Seems significant.
It's not. First, consider the source. The report comes from the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse. The chances of such an organization finding no problem is nil. Outfits like that don't explore reality, they hunt for findings that support their world view. (I'm sure they are all wonderful people, very conscientious and concerned. But that's the problem. We want our scientific findings to come from people who don't care what they find.)
Second, buried in the report are some interesting correlations. Eating dinner together as a family is correlated with reduced substance abuse. So is going to a religious service once a week. The effect sizes are of the same order as the purported FB effect. I have seen similar findings for these variables in my own work and in countless other studies of income, crime, out of wedlock birth, you name it. The headline is usually about something else, but family and religiosity almost always have a big and positive effect on the quality of life.
This leads me to suspect that these factors, and not Facebook, are the real cause here. I suspect that kids growing up in chaotic circumstances spend more of their time on the internet than kids who are, you know, doing stuff with their family and going to church youth group. The chaos kids are also more likely to do drugs. So, sure: There's a correlation between FB and drugs. It's there because chaos causes both of them. Eating togther and attending religious services reduces the chaos, reducing both FB time and substance abuse.
You could check this explanation by running a regression of substance abuse on age, sex, and the family factors. If the family situation is causing both drugs and FB, then FB time would have no effect of its own. Very easy to test. (Indeed, so easy that I am suspicious that the authors of this report didn't do it.)
In any case, the authors stuck with the FB correlation and made that the headline. Family and religion effgects? Last page. Now, why is Facebook the headline and not family togetherness and being religious? That's a question worth considering. Is it easier to do something about Facebook than about family cohesion and religiosity? Maybe. People have tried. But you can't regulate media. It's against the constitution, thankfully. Only a couple of months ago, the Supremes routed another video game regulation law.
What about the alternative to blaming media? Maybe its too hard, or too upsetting in some sense, to say something like "youth problems are best addressed by encouraging the formation of stable religious family environments."
Sure it's a hard sentence. But we have to decide. We can keep projecting our cultural problems onto media, or we can actually do something about them.