Other recent examples of high-profile teen trends in substance abuse abound. Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times reported "A troubling trend in teens drinking hand sanitizer," after six local teens were sent to the emergency rooms with alcohol poisoning after ingesting the cleanser for its high alcohol content. (Comedian Jimmy Kimmel had a shot of Purell himself as a gag on his talk show the next night: "Wow, that's terrible. These kids are really determined to get drunk," he joked.) Meanwhile, the hyped spread of "eyeballing" vodka--literally taking a shot of vodka through your eye socket, made headlines around the world last year.
But Karnik, who works with adolescent networks on and off-line, says that while social media makes it very easy for young people to share new trends-both positive and negative--such networks have always existed. Though bad ideas may have spread more slowly through word-of-mouth in the past, they were equally as problematic, he says.
"It was a high-school-to-high-school, or middle-school-to-middle-school pattern of spread before. And adults were largely unaware of these trends."
Karnik also says the overall stats are more encouraging that sensational cases make it seem. Tobacco use among teenagers, or instance, has gone down significantly in the past few years. Alcohol use is declining too.
But there are a few areas of concern nonetheless-and they're not hand sanitizer or cinnamon-based. "The areas where you see rises in abuse are cannabis and prescription drugs--prescription opiates in particular," Karnik says.
"Some media reports popularize that there's a big epidemic emerging about prescription drugs and young people, and there's an element of truth to that," he adds. "But is there an epidemic of hand sanitizer abuse out there, that's much harder to say."
Karnik notes that traditional medical tools aren't evolving fast enough to keep up with new cultural phenomena; few doctors will ask teen patients if they abuse hand sanitizer, when they ask about cigarettes or alcohol, for instance. "We're only now beginning to ask about prescription opiates," he says.
But as social media and internet technologies help spread new trends among teenagers, researchers at the University of Chicago among other faculties are beginning to look towards those same channels of spread to learn more about behavioral patterns.
"There is a sort of epidemic quality to substance abuse, and if we can study the ways these things unfold and spread online then that has the potential to greatly help us in the clinical context," Karnik says.
Web analytic tools--contained in Google or Twitter, for example--are slowly making their way into Karnik's line of study. "You know, kids often type the search terms [for news trends in illicit substances] into search engines," Karnik explains. "So that's a place where you can start to look at trends on the back end."