When your teen goes online, where does she go and what does she do? The Internet makes information accessible in ways previous generations never imagined. Social networking has all but replaced the telephone as teens’ preferred way to communicate. And online videos are putting television programmers on alert in the quest for American teens’ attention.
The Internet is also a place where anyone can say anything, where knowing the difference between fact and fiction is harder than most teens or adults realize. For parents worried about their teenager’s possible substance abuse, online activity can seem as hazardous as a boozy, unsupervised party.
Online safety experts advise parents to stay on top their teens’ activities. Easier said than done. “As a parent, it’s very easy not to know what’s going on, especially if your kid is smart or creative about hiding things from you,” says John Rodolico, PhD, director of adolescent addictions training at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass.
Tracking teens’ online activities is even harder if parents feel lost in the online universe. This article explores teen Internet use, drug information they may find, and low and high-tech ways parents can watch out for their kids’ well being.
Teens Are Teens, Online or Off
The Internet is the way most kids communicate with the world today. About 93% of kids aged 12 to 17 go online, with 73% of these teens using social media such as Facebook or MySpace, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project.
“The fact is, kids are online, and most of them are smarter than we realize.” Larry Magid, co-director of ConnectSafely.org, tells WebMD. Even if they want to, parents cannot effectively ban kids from using the Internet, and often there’s no good reason to do so.
Typically, teenagers use the Internet to be teenagers. Researchers at California State University reviewed teen blogs and chat groups and found what many experts suspected, that standard teen issues -- family, peers, romance, and identity -- constitute the bulk of the online discussions. Besides communicating, teens typically use the Internet to get news about current events; purchase books, clothing, or music; or get information about health, weight loss, and fitness.
Teens Can Learn About Drugs Online
Nonetheless, if a teenager is using drugs or leaning in that direction, the Internet provides ample reinforcement. A motivated teen can find a mountain of drug information online, including YouTube videos of teens tripping on cough medicine and information about drugs that defy standard urine tests.
A number of web sites (erowid.org, lycaeum.org, and dancesafe.org, to name a few) claim to provide a balanced picture of drug use. Some include “trip” or “experience” reports, in which individuals describe the highs they’ve achieved using recreational drugs. These sites could influence teens who are already using drugs and others looking to justify their decision to experiment with drugs.
“I have had kids insist vehemently that there is nothing wrong with marijuana and that you can’t become dependent on it because they found that information online,” says Rodolico. After 30 years of working with kids, Rodolico knows that trying to convince teens of nearly anything is a losing battle. “We can’t ban kids from the Internet, but in groups we do tell kids if they don’t want to relapse, they should stay away from those (drug reinforcing) sites,” he says.