A new study gives credibility to parents’ concerns about the affect social networks have on their teenagers.
The study, published in the Sept. 3 online edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that teens who see their friends smoking and drinking alcohol in photos posted on Facebook and Myspace are more likely to smoke and drink too.
“Our study shows that adolescents can be influenced by their friends’ online pictures to smoke or drink alcohol,” said principal investigator Thomas W. Valente, PhD, professor of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Keck School of Medicine, in a USC article.
Valente and his colleagues surveyed 1,563 students from the El Monte Union High School District in Los Angeles County in October 2010 and April 2011. Respondents were evenly distributed across gender and averaged 15 years of age.
Survey questions sought information about the students' online and offline friendship networks and the frequency of social media, smoking and alcohol use.
In April 2011, nearly 30 percent of the teens had smoked and more than 50 percent had at least one drink of alcohol. Nearly one-third of the students reported having at least one friend who smoked and/or consumed alcohol. Almost half reported visiting Facebook or Myspace on a regular basis.
Researchers found that although the size of one’s online network of friends was not associated with risky behaviors, exposure to photos of friends partying or drinking significantly influenced smoking and alcohol use. In addition, teens with close friends who did not drink were more likely to be affected by increasing exposure to risky online photos.
“The evidence suggests that friends’ online behaviors are a viable source of peer influence. This is important to know, given that 95 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds in the United States access the Internet every day, and 80 percent of those youth use online social networking sites to communicate,” said Grace C. Huang, PhD, study co-author and a post-doctorate fellow at the National Cancer Institute, in the USC article.
“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,” added Huang.