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How smartphones may curb teenage drug use

A group of teens check their smartphones outside the Natural History Museum in Washington on April 8, 2015. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Less cocaine, more iPhones?

American teenagers are growing less likely to try drugs — and smartphones may be the reason.

Faced with evidence showing that fewer teens are trying and regularly using illicit drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, some experts — and young people themselves — are speculating that the declining rates may be due to increased smartphone use.

Helena Walker, a senior at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is studying fashion design and finds she rarely leaves the studio. “I can’t take long breaks, I can’t go out for a drink.” Instead, “when we’re working a lot and we take a break, we’ll go on our phones, check Instagram, text. We’re not taking a smoke break, we’re taking a cellphone break.”

“I love posting photos, and posting inspirational things,” she added. “It gives me positive feedback.”  

There’s no study to prove that the two trends — less drug use and more smartphone use — are related, but the National Institute on Drug Abuse is planning to start exploring the possible relationship soon, The New York Times reported.

“Something is going on,” Nora Volkow, the group’s director, told the newspaper, adding that according to a new government-funded study, teens in every demographic are using less cocaine, hallucinogens, ecstasy, and crack.

A separate study found that today’s teens are less likely to drink alcohol: In 2005, 16.5 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds reported drinking compared to just 9.5 percent in 2015. Cigarette smoking plummeted in that time period, too, from 10.8 percent to 4.2 percent.

Meanwhile, access to technology among teens is at an all-time high. A 2015 Pew Research poll reported that 92 percent of American teens go online daily, and 24 percent of them are online “almost constantly.” About 73 percent have access to a smartphone.

James Anthony, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University, reiterated that there’s virtually no evidence to back up the theory that more teens are picking up their smartphones instead of experimenting with recreational drugs.

Still, he added, “you’d have to be an idiot not to think about it.”

‘The world’s smallest slot machine’

While smartphones may be a relatively new phenomenon — the first iPhone came out just a decade ago and the first Android followed a year later in 2008 — technology addictions are not.

David Greenfield, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut’s School of Medicine, founded the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction in the late 1990s. At first, the center helped treat and research internet addictions related to the web browsing — such as online gaming, shopping, and pornography — but it’s since grown to cover a wide array of tech addictions, including smartphones and social media.

All addictions, he said, activate pathways in the brain that release dopamine, a chemical often associated with pleasure.

The internet, smartphones and other tech devices are no different. “They’re the latest, greatest way to activate those pathways,” he said.

“The phone is essentially a dopamine pump. It’s the world’s smallest slot machine,” Greenfield said alluding to the rush gamblers feel after pulling the lever and waiting to see if they’ve won.

Smartphones specifically increase a user’s dopamine levels in two ways, he said. First, the expectation that a notification — like a text or a Facebook comment, for examples — is coming can make levels rise. If the information coming in is favorable, like a “like” on Instagram or good news in a message, that’s another dopamine boost.

Treatment for tech addiction is also like that for substance abuse, Greenfield said. Both start with a detox period and then focus on therapy to help patients understand their triggers and manage urges and cravings.

Both types of programs will also include relapse prevention. But managing an internet addiction can be trickier, too.

“It’s a little bit more complicated because you can’t not use technology,” he said, so patients must learn how to face their vice on a regular basis. Computer filters and monitors to block out problematic sites — be them gaming, social media, or pornography sites — can help, he said.

Obsessions vs. addiction

Greenfield said that it will be difficult to prove a direct correlation between rising smartphone use and declining drug use among teens.

“You’d have to find a group of teenagers who hasn’t adopted technology and look at their substance abuse levels,” he said.

He gave merit to the concept, though, even if it’s virtually unprovable. Given their dopamine-releasing nature and how prevalent smartphones are, “the vast majority of us are probably overusing or abusing the technology,” he said.

But don’t confuse overuse and addiction, Greenfield warned. Even if teens who are constantly on their phones are artificially elevating their dopamine levels, it doesn’t mean they’re addicts.

For Emmett Wechsler, who recently graduated from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., smoking marijuana and checking your cellphone spring from the same place: “People need something to do – when I smoked [marijuana] in college it was because there wasn’t anything to do.”

He laughs when he calls himself “addicted” to his phone.

“I feel naked without it,” he said. “I always have it on me.”