HSC researchers address social media influences on underage drinking

By Sally Crocker

Father And Daughter On Tablet

About 11% of all alcohol consumed across the country is among young people in the 12-20 age group, with 90% falling into the category of heavy-episodic drinking.

Excessive drinking is responsible for thousands of deaths among underage youth each year.

Two HSC School of Public Health researchers  Dana M. Litt, PhD, and Melissa A. Lewis, PhD, have been studying the influences, motivations and perspectives of young adults who drink, to develop interventions for curbing this national problem.

Through the STARR (Studying Alcohol and Related Risks) Lab, Drs. Litt and Lewis are partnering in National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded grant projects on risky health behaviors among young adults, including alcohol and substance use.  In one ongoing study, Project PRISM, they are specifically interested in examining social media as one factor likely to influence adolescent alcohol use.

Research has shown that increases in the number of social media contacts significantly link to an increased number of alcohol displays appearing in users’ feeds. Social media has rapidly changed both how and where people communicate, interact and organize socially – and both viewing and creating alcohol-related online content is associated with drinking.

Nearly 90% of teens report that they are on social media “almost constantly,” with more contacts online than off. Approximately 78% are active on more than one social networking site.

“Viewing alcohol content on sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok and Twitter leads young adults to believe their peers do it, that drinking isn’t risky and that people who drink are ‘popular,’ increasing their willingness to use alcohol themselves,” Dr. Lewis said.

“Imagine how many images they see and interact with daily, especially if the posts are by friends or celebrities and how that can influence their beliefs and behaviors,” she said.

Words, pictures and emojis of common drinking symbols  like clinking beers, wine glasses, tropical drinks and cocktails – are popular on these sites, and 50% of young adults surveyed indicate they have previously tweeted the work “drunk.” Thirty percent say they have used the word “beer” in their posts. Ads for drug sales targeting this age group, as well as peer-to-peer illegal drug sales, are also prevalent on social media sites, the researchers note.

Because parents can be such an important source of support, Dr. Litt said, the research team became interested in how parents could use their influence to curb the potentially harmful effects of alcohol use content on social media.

Research was conducted with a series of parent and teen focus groups to learn more about their experiences related to communicating about these subjects, as well as their preferences for intervention content.

As a result of these focus groups, Drs. Litt and Lewis are currently developing and preparing to pilot and evaluate an online program offering parents guidance on how to start and maintain important conversations with their children about social media and alcohol influences.

A test website for parents will be launched in 2022, with videos and different modules they can self-navigate. The researchers hope that if found to be effective, the site can eventually become a resource for families nationally.

“We found through focus groups that parents really want tips and strategies to help,” Dr. Litt said, “and that teens are also very open to talking more with their parents in these areas, especially if approached in non-judgmental ways where both can walk away feeling positive.”

“Parents also indicated that they would like any program they use to be flexible, so they can revisit as many times as they like and use the information that is most relevant to them,” Dr. Litt said. “Parents are extremely busy so one of our key priorities is presenting information in brief, yet interactive ways, that parents can fit into their already busy schedules.” 

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