Teens Talking Drugs—Do You Understand?

A couple of moths ago, Nielsen BuzzMetrics (the same "Nielsen" that tracks television viewers) released information from a study commissioned by Caron Treatment Centers that looked at what teens were discussing during the hours they spend posting messages on websites. The final document [link: ]http://www.caron.org/content.asp?section=press&cat=pressrelease&PR=478] is an enlightening read that every parent should take fifteen minutes and page through—even if you are convinced your teen isn’t part of the drug culture.

Of course, the media ratings company couldn’t eavesdrop on your daughter’s private instant messenger conversations, but they (and you) can read the "public" statements written on teen haunts like Teenspot.com and Myspace.com. 10.3 million messages later (Enuf 2 mAk me tired - lol!) they discovered a significant number of young people are using the Internet to trade more than gossip and song choices.

Instead, drugs were on many teens’ minds with questions and discussions about alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and LSD being the most popular topics in 160,000 of the analyzed messages.

Obviously, asking your parents how many milligrams of cough syrup to take so you can begin to hallucinate would likely not solicit a positive response. But the Internet provides an infinite wealth of one-to-one experiences for kids to learn about the latest ways to use illegal and dangerous drugs "safely." A few examples of questions found:

• How long does it take for marijuana to clear your system? When can I pass a drug test?

• Is there a way that Ecstasy could be modified to be legal?

• Would someone smoking weed from a hookah need charcoals? What is the metal tray on hookahs used for?

Another popular topic is the debate over which is "better" for you: Marijuana or tobacco. This is a highly discussed issue with teens (and adults) who claim marijuana should be legalized because it doesn’t have the same addictive properties as tobacco. (Frankly, in a world where we recall manufactured products after one person is injured using it in a bathtub, I can’t understand why there is any question that both these drugs are dangerous.)

There are also interesting differences between ages and genders in the studied messages.

Young teens share their usage experiences and ideas of how to concoct new deadly cocktails on message boards, as opposed to personal blogs or journals. A message board provides greater anonymity, allowing a young person to converse without parents knowing. However, college students and young adults are far more likely to be more bold with their experiences and opinions, and will often include experiences from high school up to the past evening on their personal web spaces and blogs.

In messages where gender was identifiable, girls were more likely to discuss topics like marijuana than were boys. However, the focus of their writing was typically how marijuana affected someone’s image, and how or if marijuana use affected their friendships and romantic relationships.

Boys, on the other hand, were much more into sharing experiences smoking pot and debating its legal status and health effects (most believe marijuana smoke will not cause lung cancer because it doesn’t contain the tar that tobacco does). Many messages also indicated destructive behavior associated with marijuana, ranging from cutting classes to self-mutilation while high. There is also a prevailing assumption that boys are more likely to smoke than girls, and many boys wished more girls smoked marijuana.

This desire to have girls getting high may be related to discussions about alcohol, in which many writers talked about how much fun it is to get drunk before and during parties. Teens testified that alcohol made them more "adventurous" and they were able to have more fun having sex and "making out" when they were drunk. In fact, sex was closely related to discussions involving alcohol, with girls talking about it more frequently in messages where gender could be identified.

By now you are perhaps convinced that you teen will no longer network on the computer. This may be the correct answer for your home, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, those 160,000 messages represent only 1.6% of all messages recorded. There is a good chance your kids are having much more benign conversations.

Yet, it would be wrong to not keep your guard up, and recognize that it’s not just middle-aged predators that you have to be concerned about. In this case, it is typically other Internet users who are about the same age as your children with whom they are sharing information. Also, as I mentioned, there isn’t any way for a research company to know what your kids are talking about on private messaging services, like MSN or Yahoo!. However, many Internet filtering programs will record these conversations so you can keep tabs on what’s going on. Of course, the oft cited need to keep the family computer in a busy location in your home is essential.

Another idea is to create your own account on MySpace or FaceBook. I recently signed up on FaceBook and added my own kids. Soon many of their friends were collecting me as a "friend," which gives me a way to keep tabs on conversations and what’s going on in their social circles.

Finally, talk to your kids. Take them to the nearest ice cream stop and find a table in the corner. If they are reluctant to share where they go and what they talk about while on-line, you may want to look at ways of managing the Internet even more carefully in your home.

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