In the latest such study, researchers from the University of Southern California have found that teens who see photographs of friends smoking and drinking on social media are more likely to do so themselves. The study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, was based on a survey of 1,563 tenth grade students in Los Angeles over a six-month period beginning October 2010, and revealed that 34% of respondents had at least one friend who talked about partying on social media, while 20% said their friends posted photos of them drinking online.
The study was able to separate correlation from causation by tracking subject responses over time, showing that teens’ increased exposure to pictures of friends smoking and drinking was followed by increased propensity to engage in these activities themselves, rather than a simultaneous or coincidental phenomenon. Indeed, the fewer close friends a teen had who smoked or drank, the more likely that teen would be influenced by pictures of other people engaging in these activities on social media -- suggesting it is in fact the pictures, rather than direct personal interactions, that are doing the influencing.
At the same time, the study also separated out factors like the size of an individuals’ online friend network, which was shown to have no impact on behaviors like smoking and drinking.
Recently I wrote about a study proposal from the National Institutes of Health that intends to investigate the ways social media encourages binge drinking, and may also serve as a platform for “preventive interventions” to combat alcohol abuse. The NIH’s Funding Opportunity Announcement notes that social media may shape perceptions of acceptable levels of alcohol consumption and prompt alcohol abuse, as “the portrayal of oneself as a drinker, especially as one able to consume significant amounts of alcohol, is considered by many young people to be a socially desirable component of one’s identity.”
The NIH proposal solicitation further states, all too plausibly: “Underage drinking generally is not viewed as deviant behavior on such sites, that drinking on school nights is seemingly quite acceptable, and that getting ‘wasted’ (including blackouts) is hardly a cause for concern -- indeed, reconstructing with others the full range of ‘lost’ events following a bout of binge drinking seems mostly regarded as a fun activity.”