American teens have been riding a 10-year trend of reduced experimentation with drugs and alcohol. That’s the same decade that put smartphones and social media accounts into the hands of most young people. Coincidence? Researchers don’t think so.
As first reported this week by The New York Times, experts suggest that many young folks are no longer looking to illegal substances for thrills and entertainment because their interactive world plays to similar impulses, including sensation-seeking and the desire for independence.
One assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, David Greenfield at the University of Connecticut, said that in the hands of a teenager, the smartphone is “a portable dopamine pump.”
For sure, a mobile device can prove to be an option or a distraction from more reckless activities such as drugs. As one 17-year-old explained it to The Times reporter: The phone provides a valuable tool for people at parties who don’t want to do drugs because “you can sit around and look like you’re doing something, even if you’re not doing something, like just surfing the Web.”
Regrettably, the teens’ internet-over-drugs bent seems short-lived. While drug use has fallen among youths ages 12 to 17, it hasn’t declined among college students.
And digital technology can do its own share of damage to physical and mental health, whether in the form of deadly texting behind the wheel or the 24-7 hamster wheel of “wired and tired.” Smartphones can reduce focus and mess with young people’s sleep patterns. They also are a tool credited with helping students adapt to a changing world and make real social connections.
And if smartphones occupy time that otherwise would be spent on partying, that’s probably a good thing as well.