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Teens More Likely to Smoke, Drink If Facebook Friends Do

Teens who see pictures of their friends smoking or drinking alcohol on their Facebook or other social media pages are more likely to smoke and drink themselves, according to a new study from the University of Southern California.

Sparking concerns that Facebook may negatively impact a teen’s health, the study is bound to make waves thanks to widespread social media use among teens. About 95 percent of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 regularly use the Internet, and 81 percent of those also use social media. MySpace may be falling out of favor, but 94 percent of teens who use social media have a Facebook account. The research may provide some reason to be concerned about what your teen sees on social media sites, but it’s important to remember that this is merely an updated mechanism for the old issue of peer influence.

The Study

The researchers set out to determine the effect social media sites have on risky behavior in teens by surveying over 1,500 teens from across five schools in Southern California from late 2010 to early 2011. In this time, Facebook use boomed while MySpace use became less common. The students were all 10th-graders and the researchers also tried to determine how the influence from social media compared to face-to-face interaction, and asked questions about their smoking and drinking over the study period.

What They Found

One of the main findings of the study was that the size of the students’ friend groups did not impact their risky behavior, and the amount of time spent on social media wasn’t correlated with smoking or drinking. This means that social media use itself doesn’t make teens more likely to drink, even if there are parallels with addiction, and the number of friends your teen has doesn’t mean they’re more likely to be drinking.

However, when the researchers looked at the teens whose friends regularly talked about partying or posted pictures of themselves smoking and drinking, they did find a significant association. The results showed that the teens who saw these sorts of pictures or comments were more likely to smoke and drink, and the impact of pictures was greater for those without drinking and smoking friends in real life. Of the teens in the study, 34 percent had friends who talked about partying, and 20 percent had friends who posted pictures of substance abuse on the sites. At the end of the study, almost a third of the participants had smoked a cigarette and over half had consumed alcohol.

The researchers also confirmed existing differences seen between Facebook and MySpace users. According to their own results and previous studies, Facebook users are more likely to have a higher socioeconomic status, better grades and speak more English at home. In addition Facebook users were less likely to have smoked or to have had an alcoholic drink than those who use MySpace. However, it’s worth noting that existing knowledge about the effects of socioeconomic status, for example, show that a lower status makes teens more likely to drink.

Peer Pressure in Any Other Form

It’s clear that the results of this study merely confirm the impact of peer influence on teens’ risky behaviors. The problem has existed for some time, and remains one of the key reasons that teens are susceptible to drug use. Risky behaviors are more common in teens because the frontal cortex—the decision-making and reasoning portion of the brain—isn’t fully connected, thus making it more difficult for a teen to properly evaluate a decision before taking action.

This is why teens are particularly prone to addiction, and it also serves to explain the impacts of simply seeing pictures. The boom in social media is a reminder that we are inherently social animals, and we’re always keen to fit in with friends. If you think back to your teenage years, you’ll inevitably have some stories of your own about trying to fit in with your peers—it happens to everybody. The problem occurs, however, when in an effort to fit in with your peers you engage in behaviors you otherwise wouldn’t. This requires some frontal cortex intervention to avoid, making it a greater risk for teens.

Social media doesn’t present a new problem; it’s merely a mechanism through which peer influence can exert itself. Influential friends bragging about partying and posting smile-filled pictures of smoking and drinking essentially re-establishes the old myth that self-abuse is “cool.” However, it’s important to note that this study didn’t establish a cause-and-effect relationship, because many other factors could have had an impact on their findings. Despite this fact, the proposed explanation seems to stand to reason and is likely to be supported by future research.

Conclusion

Lead author Grace Huang, PhD, said: “Our study suggests that it may be beneficial to teach teens about the harmful effects of posting risky behaviors online and how those displays can hurt their friends.” This appears to be the best advice to take from this study, but it’s important to realize that teens will probably never be completely protected from potentially damaging influences. Parents need to ensure that teens know the dangers of drugs and alcohol, that they possess the confidence to say “no” and the strength of will to make their own decisions.

There is still hope.

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