Social media is an issue in many families, and for good reason. As parents, we worry about cyberbullying, distraction from schoolwork, and decreased face-to-face social interaction.
Additionally, researchers are finding links between social media use and underage drinking. A 2012 study1 by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University showed that teens who had seen pictures on social media suggesting substance use were more likely to use tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana compared to kids who have never seen such pictures on social media.
Assuming we won’t be taking away our kids’ smartphones anytime soon, what should we be on the lookout for? Many researchers point to two problem areas: peer-posted content about alcohol and advertising by alcohol brands.
PEER ALCOHOL-THEMED CONTENT
Engaging with social media posts and images featuring alcohol correlates to higher instances of underage drinking and problem drinking, according to a 2018 University of Pennsylvania study2 that looked at 9,000 users across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat.
“Substance use, particularly alcohol, is frequently displayed on social media sites—this normalizes drinking for teens and young adults,” said lead study author Brenda Curtis.
In the earlier study, 45% of teens surveyed had seen pictures on social media of other teens getting drunk, passed out, or using drugs. Among those teens who had seen such pictures, 47% said that it seemed like the teens in the pictures were having a good time.
Researchers also find that most alcohol-related photos show the “fun” parts of drinking, not the hangovers or embarrassment teens felt after the fact.
Considering that peers are a major influence in an adolescent’s decision-making, it’s not surprising that social media imagery of drinking and drinking parties can influence a teen to start drinking or continue to do so.
ADVERTISING BY ALCOHOL BRANDS
Social media adds yet another platform for children to be exposed to messaging from alcohol brands. While alcohol brands are prohibited from marketing to minors, most alcohol brand websites don’t utilize age-verifying tools online other than asking users for their birthdate. Snapchat has recently improved its process to verify ads are only served to people of legal drinking age, but Instagram does not have a way to filter users by age with 100% accuracy—allowing many teens to easily follow and engage with alcohol brands.
In a 2016 study,3 researchers created fake social media profiles with ages below 21. All the Instagram profiles “were able to follow all alcohol brand pages and received an average of 362 advertisements within 30 days.”
Not only can minors view alcohol brand photos, they can see hashtags promoting alcohol usage such as #mojitomonday, #beeroclock, #happyhour, and more. Brands also offer interactive games, encourage users to post selfies and tag their brand, and show celebrities and influencers drinking their product.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
You can obviously try to monitor your child’s use of social media, but that’s not foolproof. Teens may have social media accounts that you’re not aware of, or see content that you have no way of knowing about.
This parent’s guide to social media on PsychologyToday.com explores some steps you can take to monitor phone usage, understand how social media affects your child, and have productive discussions about your expectations.
Also, you can read how some tech leaders who are also parents teach their children about decision making when it comes to time spent on social media, sharing images and information, and interacting with content.
And, as always, be sure to talk to your child about the consequences of drinking underage, and guide them in choosing positive and healthy ways to spend their time.
1Center of Addiction and Substance Use, National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse XVII: Teens, 2012.
2University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine press release, “Social media usage linked to underage drinking,” May 2018.
3Adam E. Barry, Austin M. Bates, et al., “Alcohol Marketing on Twitter and Instagram: Evidence of Directly Advertising to Youth/Adolescents,” Alcohol and Alcoholism, July/August 2016.