While the internet serves the world in amazing ways, it is often a double-edged sword. Many researchers and experts have compared the internet to drug or alcohol addiction — in part due to the inability of people to go days or weeks without using the technology. The rise of social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other channels, has only strengthened the internet’s grip as a primary influencer in today’s society. For that reason, social media can have a massive influence on daily choices and activities. While some thoughts and actions are harmless or fleeting, an influence to misuse drugs or alcohol can have long-term damaging effects.

The Recovery Village conducted a survey asking people about the power of the internet and whether that power can influence people to experiment with or misuse harmful substances. Some of the questions the survey was designed to answer include:

  • Are the internet and social media connected to addiction? If so, in what way?
  • How powerful is the impact of social media and the internet on a person’s life, and how much time do most people spend using them per day?
  • Is it easier to obtain drugs online or in person?
  • Is it easier to seek addiction treatment thanks to the internet?
  • Are people who use the internet more or less likely to suffer from addiction than people who do not use this technology?

The Power of the Internet and Social Media

How did society survive before the internet and social media? Somehow it did, but the thought seems so far-fetched to those who have grown accustomed to its conveniences.

As The Recovery Village’s survey responses confirm, most people spend several hours each day either surfing the internet or looking at their favorite social media sites. Of the 399 respondents, 210 (52.63 percent) said that they use the internet several times a day and 81 (20.3 percent) said that they are “online all day.” Only 108 of the respondents — or around 27 percent — use the internet once per day, at most.

Consider also the power of the internet and social media. Facebook is at the center of a political controversy due to its effect on the 2016 Presidential Election. This combined with the amount of time many people spend using these technologies gives social media a dangerous amount of influence over society. Technology is at the point now where if we search Google for laundry tips, we will likely receive a banner advertisement for detergent. If we look up news about a football or baseball game, we might get an advertisement about cheap flights to one of the cities represented in the game. There are other ways the internet can influence us, and one way in particular is through social decisions and activity.

Social media is, at its core, a way for people to interact with one another in a public way. People post information about their lives, new jobs, relationships, family updates or something as simple as the fun itinerary for the upcoming weekend. Social media is an easy way to link people’s wide-ranging network of friends and families together on one platform. Social media is also an easy way for people to compare their lives to others, which generates its own unique set of challenges.

Maybe a friend talks about their fun weekend and jealousy grows in someone who reads about it. Maybe a former girlfriend or boyfriend announce they are in a new relationship, bringing a sense of loneliness. Whatever the experience, social media platforms have a strong hold on how people view themselves. This is extremely prevalent for adolescents and young adults, who sometimes suffer from cyberbullying due to social media.

Does that influence seep into decisions to misuse drugs or alcohol? Are people who are active on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter more likely to misuse drugs because they were influenced by someone else online? Who is most at risk of being influenced in this way: teenagers, adults, or is every age demographic equally susceptible?

Is Social Media a Gateway to Drug Misuse?

Drug and alcohol addiction remain issues at large in the United States. A reported 20.2 million Americanssuffer from a substance use disorder each year. There are many contributing factors to these worrisome statistics, including the rising prevalence of prescription drug misuse and the ongoing opioid epidemic.

Is the internet and social media another primary reason for drug and alcohol addiction in the United States?

Nearly half of survey respondents — 196 out of 399 — believe that the internet and social media are connected to addiction. Nearly 30 percent believe that they are not intertwined, and around 21 percent answered “unsure.” Individuals who suspect that the two are connected gave a range of reasons why, including:

  • The internet and social media contain too many depictions of drug use (53.57 percent)
  • The internet and social media actively promote drug use (62 respondents, 31.63 percent)
  • The internet and social media encourage drug addiction treatment (17 respondents, 8.67 percent)

The survey respondents were also asked what the biggest contributing factor was to drug addiction in 2018, and 42 people (10.53 percent) selected “pop culture (social media and the internet).” Many people who follow pop culture icons on social media see these people glorifying the use of drugs and alcohol. That could influence people, particularly adolescents and young adults who are more likely to look up to those with celebrity status, to experiment with these substances themselves.

Social media and the internet was the fourth-most-selected choice for the question. Around 26 percent of survey respondents picked “availability of prescription drugs.” Denial of addiction accounts for 19 percent of responses, while 17 percent of respondents say that availability of illicit drugs most contributes to addiction.

Additionally, many people believe that the internet and social media make it easier for people to acquire drugs. The majority of survey respondents  — nearly 60 percent, 238 people — said it’s easier to find and purchase drugs thanks to social media, while only 19 percent (76 people) said the internet has not made it easier to obtain drugs or alcohol. The Guardian published an article in December of 2017 outlining how teenagers purchase drugs through social media platforms.

“Social media sellers use hashtags and emojis to indicate what they stock, and share images of the substances,” the article states. “They provide alternative contact details, and most deals then take place on other platforms such as the encrypted messenger application Wickr.”

The internet includes a wealth of information and possibilities. One of the main characteristics of this technology is how easy it is for strangers to connect with one another. Social media allows for people on opposite sides of the world to discuss any topic they want. Likewise, people can sell their possessions they no longer need or buy someone else’s stuff, all through the internet.

One of the internet’s main characteristics is its ability to connect people. Another is how influential it can be sometimes.

Who is More At Risk for Social Media’s Influence?

Due to social media’s influence — and how many people acknowledge its power — nearly half of survey respondents (49 percent) said that people who regularly use the internet and social media are most prone to developing a drug addiction. Nearly 27 percent said that people who sparingly use these technologies are most susceptible to addiction, and less than 25 percent said that people who do not use the internet and social media are most vulnerable to this illness.

However, research shows that adolescents and young adults are most likely to be influenced by the internet and in the most danger of succumbing to substance misuse. This is in part due to the fact that younger people are more active on social media. If this demographic of internet and social media users is aware of their vulnerability, they might be more protective of their own decisions when they see substance use glorified.

While the younger population accounts for the most social media activity, The Recovery Village’s survey suggests that adolescents and young adults are more likely than older people to think that social media and the internet are connected to drug addiction. Of survey respondents who are between the ages 18 and 24 — who are either teenagers now, or were teenagers during social media’s peak — nearly 64 percent said that social media and the internet are connected to drug addiction. Nearly 70 percent believe that these technologies make it easier to acquire drugs or other harmful substances, and more than half answered that people who use social media regularly are more susceptible to drug addiction.

By comparison, more people ages 35 and older believe that social media and the internet are not connected to addiction than respondents from the same age bracket who do think that there is a link.

Despite this awareness of the internet’s influential power, adolescents and young adults remain more susceptible to impulsive behavior and decisions that go against their knowledge. “The teenage brain is not just an adult brain with fewer miles on it,” Frances E. Jensen, a professor of neurology, said in The Harvard Magazine. “It’s a paradoxical time of development. These are people with very sharp brains, but they’re not quite sure what to do with them.” That is why, even though teenagers are aware of how social media can impact their decisions, they are still at risk for negative influences.

Most people recognize social media’s power over their lives and decisions, and this awareness is a positive. The next step, though, is learning how to block the negative influences and surround oneself with positive ones. Social media can be a path toward harmful decisions, such as the one to misuse drugs or alcohol and potentially develop a life-altering addiction. Not succumbing to those influences can be difficult, but there are coping methods to help against the pressures of social media and the internet.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.