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Excessive texting, networking linked to unhealthy behavior in teens

A study finds a greater risk of cyberbullying, sexual activity and underage drinking among this tech-savvy group than other adolescents.

By Christine S. Moyer — Posted Dec. 1, 2010

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Asking adolescent patients about the number of text messages they send each day and how much time they spend on social networking websites could help decrease cyberbullying, sexual activity and underage drinking in this group, according to the author of a new report.

Excessive texting and online social networking among teenagers is associated with a number of unhealthy behaviors, according to the study, which was presented Nov. 9 at the American Public Health Assn.'s annual meeting in Denver. Excessive texting is defined as sending more than 120 text messages each school day, and excessive networking is spending more than three hours on social networking websites each school day.

The findings do not indicate that such activities cause unhealthy behavior, said lead study author Scott Frank, MD. Rather, the study found that excessive text messaging and social networking are associated with these behaviors.

"What we're seeing is peer pressure being taken to a high-tech level. ... Technology is enabling -- or is facilitating -- unhealthy behavior" among teenagers, said Dr. Frank, a family physician at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland.

Since completing the study, he has started asking young patients about their use of text messaging and social networking sites. He hopes to target adolescents who could be at risk of troubling behavior and help steer them toward healthy choices. These questions "should become part of the toolbox primary care physicians use" during medical visits with adolescent patients, said Dr. Frank, director of the master of public health program at the medical school.

Seventy-five percent of youths 12 to 17 had a cell phone in 2009, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. About 88% reported sending text messages. Seventy-three percent of teens who spent time online visited a social networking website.

Researchers examined the responses of 4,257 high school students in the Cleveland area to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which was administered in the spring of 2009. They found that 19.8% of participants reported excessive texting, and 11.5% used social networking sites for extended periods. Overuse was most common among females, blacks, Hispanics and teens from lower-income families.

Excessive texters were at least three times more likely to have had sex than those who sent fewer messages, according to the study (link). These teenagers also were twice as likely to have consumed alcohol.

Participants who overused social networking were more than two times more likely to have attempted suicide and to have been a cyberbully victim than teens who visited websites less frequently.

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