Pro-Pot Tweets Reaching Hundreds of Thousands of Youths

Young man with smartphone

Researchers Say Messages Set the Stage for Drug Use

Twitter is one of the most popular social media applications in use in the U.S. and across much of the world. While most users of the application are private citizens, companies and organizations also use Twitter to promote their products and causes. In a study published in June 2014 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine used an examination of a single, popular Twitter-based organization to determine which groups of people are most likely to receive “tweets” that carry a pro-marijuana message.

Understanding Twitter

According to recent figures compiled by the Pew Research Internet Project, about 19 percent of U.S. adults who use the Internet read and/or post to at least one Twitter account. This rate of use makes the application second in popularity behind Facebook. In terms of age, the highest rate of Twitter use (35 percent) occurs among Internet users between the ages of 18 and 29. Rates of use are fairly stable across a range of other demographic categories, including educational status and income level. Men access Twitter accounts somewhat more often than women (22 percent of Internet users vs. 15 percent of Internet users).

Marijuana Use and Harm

Marijuana is illegal at the federal level throughout the U.S. and also illegal under most state statutes. Despite these facts, the drug ranks third to only alcohol and nicotine/tobacco as the most popular recreational substance in the U.S. In 2012 (the last year with available federal-level statistics), almost 19 million American adults and teens used marijuana one or more times in the average month. This level of use makes the drug far more widespread than any other illicit/illegal substance. Intake of illegal/illicit substances in general and marijuana in particular clusters heavily among young adults, although preteens, teens and adults of all ages also use the drug to one extent or another.

Despite popular frames of discussion that view marijuana use positively in relation to alcohol consumption, intake of the drug comes with clearly established risks for both teenagers and adults. Chief among these risks is the very real chance of developing a diagnosable case of cannabis use disorder (cannabis abuse and/or cannabis addiction). Additional dangers linked to marijuana intake include altered memory and learning abilities, disrupted or delayed brain development in heavy teen users, lasting reductions in IQ scores, increased problems with lung function, temporary psychosis and statistically higher chances of having symptoms of the psychosis-related mental illness schizophrenia.

Who Receives Pro-Marijuana Tweets?

In the study published in Journal of Medical Internet Research, the Washington University School of Medicine researchers examined the distribution patterns of 2,285 individual tweets issued from a Twitter account called @stillblazingtho from May 2013 to December 2013. The researchers chose to focus on this particular account because it has roughly 1 million followers and clearly serves as a popular outlet for marijuana-related content. Fully 82 percent of the tweets sent out by @stillblazingtho featured a pro-marijuana message; conversely, only .31 percent of the tweets sent from this account had content that could be reasonably construed as anti-marijuana.

“As people are becoming more accepting of marijuana use and two states have legalized the drug for recreational use, it is important to remember that it remains a dangerous drug of abuse,” said principal investigator Patricia A. Cavazos-Rehg, PhD, in a news release. “I’ve been studying what is influencing attitudes to change dramatically and where people may be getting messages about marijuana that are leading them to believe the drug is not hazardous.”

The researchers concluded that exposure to pro-marijuana tweets varies substantially according to the age of the population group under consideration. Almost 73 percent of the followers of @stillblazingtho during the study period were younger than 20. Even in the two states that have legalized the drug, Colorado and Washington, people in this age range would qualify as minors and would not have legitimate access to marijuana. All told, the account ranked among the highest percentiles for all Twitter accounts followed by 17- to 19-year-olds. Compared to Twitter averages for African Americans and Hispanic/Latinos, @stillblazingtho was also unusually popular. The account ranked in the upper third for all Twitter accounts followed by Hispanic/Latinos.

The study’s authors emphasize the rate of pro-marijuana message exposure among younger Twitter users and note the fact that many people initiate their long-term patterns of substance intake during late adolescence/early adulthood. The authors believe that their work points out a pressing need for the monitoring of Twitter accounts in order to fully assess the public’s exposure to messages that favor marijuana use.


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