Researchers help parents talk with kids about social media and drinking

By Sally Crocker

Kids Web

Parents can be one of the best deterrents to underage drinking by having knowledge of and talking to their kids about alcohol content presented on social networking sites, say two UNT Health Science Center public health researchers.

Dana M. Litt, PhD, Associate Professor at the UNTHSC School of Public Health (SPH), and UNTHSC SPH Professor Melissa A. Lewis, PhD, are leading a new National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) study focused on teen and young adult alcohol interventions. The project recently received a three-year, $630,000 NIAAA grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This effort continues the work their teams have previously been involved with to combat drinking among youth aged 15-20.

In their previous work, the two researchers found that social media can have a tremendous impact on teens’ and young adults’ perceptions and behaviors regarding alcohol.

This significant and innovative new project involves the first parent-based intervention to be developed focusing on the role of social networking sites in teen and young adult alcohol use.

“Social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook and others can present messages encouraging drinking and making it look cool and fun,” Dr. Litt said. “Emojis, slang terms, even pictures of friends, peers or acquaintances sipping what appears to be alcoholic beverages at parties can all make drinking seem like the thing to do.

“Online posts by celebrities and social media influencers that kids might admire and follow can also reflect and encourage drinking,” Dr. Litt said. “Parents may not necessarily get the implications or speak that language, but those who have that awareness can be very important in shaping the ways their kids interpret alcohol-related posts they see on social media.”

The UNTHSC research team has engaged Penn State Professor Rob Turrisi, PhD, as a consultant on the project. Dr. Turrisi’s groundbreaking work in creating parent-based interventions for young adult drinking helped set the stage for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) programs on the power of parents in influencing their kids not to drink.

“Believe it or not, teens and young adults list their parents as playing a major role in their decisions to not drink alcohol before age 21,” Dr. Lewis said. “The conversations that families have together can make a big difference, which is why we are focusing on this crucial area of early intervention.”

The UNTHSC team will begin conducting parent focus groups to learn about the types of conversations they already are having with their kids about alcohol content they see on social media, areas where they may have questions or need more information, their levels of social media literacy, and their skills in interpreting the messages found on popular social media sites frequented by teens and young adults.

The researchers also will conduct focus groups among those aged 15-20 to gain their perspectives on how parents can best talk to their kids about alcohol and social media use.

The final phase of the project will use the data gathered to develop and test a set of online, parent-based interventions and talking points that families can use as a guide to discussing alcohol-related content on social media.  Once put into place, the interventions will be tracked to evaluate their preliminary impact on youth drinking perceptions and behaviors.

“Even though there are many influences on kids aged 15-20, we know that what parents say and the examples they set matter a lot,” Dr. Litt said. “Our goal through this project is to give parents the tools they need to open up those crucial conversations about alcohol and social media with their kids.”

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