What are we to make of the rather official sounding "National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVI" from The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA)? That Facebook causes kids to drink? That Twitter will drive your teens to smoke dope? That watching Jersey Shore will ensure Johnny illegally gets his hands on prescription drugs?
These and more outrageous claims are made by a body that is housed at Columbia University, has a stellar staff of scientists and policy thinkers and is headed up by no less than former US Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, Joseph A. Califano, Jr. What becomes painfully clear as you read through the report findings is that they have taken correlations and suggested, no proclaimed, that American teens (strangely aged 12 to 17) are at an increased risk of smoking, drinking and drug use if they spend any time on a social networking site. They've taken a statistical connection and turned it into causation. The LA Times equates it to the whacky claims of well-meaning health experts that ice cream might cause polio.
If that weren't bad enough, CASA's Califano is quoted in the accompanying press release as stating:
The time has come for those who operate and profit from social networking sites like Facebook to deploy their technological expertise to curb such images and to deny use of their sites to children and teens who post pictures of themselves and their friends drunk, passed out or using drugs. Continuing to provide the electronic vehicle for transmitting such images constitutes electronic child abuse.
The findings in this year's survey should strike Facebook fear into the hearts of parents of young children and drive home the need for parents to give their children the will and skill to keep their heads above the water of the corrupting cultural currents their children must navigate.
For those of us in the online safety community who have lived through nearly a decade of technopanic created by such shameless shows as To Catch a Predator, this kind of hyperbole is less than helpful. It's stunning that an organization with such a deep roster of highly experienced thinkers and doers would stoop to the level of fear-mongering and hysterics. And, according to Califano:
The relationship of social networking site images of kids drunk, passed out, or using drugs and of suggestive teen programming to increased teen risk of substance abuse offers grotesque confirmation of the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words.
If this is the case, why choose the photos of a boy smoking a cigarette and a teen girl being passed a joint on the CASA home page? According to their own logic, these photos are tantamount to "electronic child abuse."
CASA is confronting a series of issues that are of real concern. Parents do worry about the impact of excessive use of social networking, texting, and other online activities on their kids. Many of us adults struggle with finding a balance in our digital lives and are often guilty of modeling bad behavior to our kids in our use of electronics - whether by texting at the table or at the wheel. As a society we need to get a hold of our technologies and maintain a healthy perspective on how far our gizmos have captured our daily lives.
But we are not best served by alarmist, headline-grabbing statements that are based on faulty extrapolations of data. Let's keep a level head and show our kids that we adults, including those that run large and well-funded organizations, can make sense of our digital world without resorting to the kind of observations that might embarrass Chicken Little.
This post has been updated from a previous version.