What if being stupid over smartphones actually shields teenagers from drug and alcohol use?
That's the intriguing supposition out of a just-released survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And isn't it about time that our much-maligned mobile devices — supposedly imbued with the power to make digital robots of us all — caught a break?
That goes double for their teenage users.
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 by The New York Times' Matt Richtel, experts suspect there's some symmetry in digital-first teens kicking drugs to the curb. They 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.
Today's teens can't recall a world without smartphones, yet the devices haven't been around long enough to allow researchers to understand their impact on the brain. So as part of its annual Monitoring Abuse study, the institute will gather experts next month to dig even deeper into the topic.
One assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, David Greenfield at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said that in the hands of a teen the ubiquitous smartphone is "a portable dopamine pump."
For sure, a mobile device can prove to be a useful prop — 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, if the teens' internet-over-drugs bent is real, it also 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."
While we've never encountered an actual teen iPhone zombie, the devices 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 making real social connections.
And if smartphones occupy time that otherwise would be spent on partying, that's probably a good thing as well.
— The Dallas Morning News