Teenage Behavior Influenced By Images Of Friends Drinking, Smoking Online
September 3, 2013

Teenage Behavior Influenced By Images Of Friends Drinking, Smoking Online

Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

A study from the University of Southern California (USC) claims teens are so impressionable that they can be influenced by what they see their friends doing online. Specifically, those teens who see their friends drinking and smoking in Facebook and Myspace pictures were more likely to do the same thing themselves.

The study was carried out between 2010 and 2011, accounting for the inclusion of Myspace. According to their numbers, 30 percent of the teens they surveyed had smoked while nearly 50 percent had tried alcohol. Most of these teens -- four out of five -- used social networks to communicate with their friends. The USC researchers have their results published in the online edition of the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“Our study shows that adolescents can be influenced by their friends’ online pictures to smoke or drink alcohol,” explained Thomas W. Valente, PhD, professor of preventative medicine and the Keck School of Medicine at USC. “To our knowledge, this is the first study to apply social network analysis methods to examine how teenagers’ activities on online social networking sites influence their smoking and alcohol use.”

Dr. Valente and Grace C. Huang, PhD, MPH, a graduate of the Keck School of Medicine of USC’s Health Behavior Research program, surveyed a group of 1,563 tenth grade teens from the El Monte Union High School in California from October 2010 to April 2011. Though Myspace popularity was already waning at this time (only 13 percent of the teens interviewed said they checked it regularly) it was still listed as a frequent online spot for students.

After asking the teenagers how they spent their time online and what they liked to do after school, the USC researchers concluded that the size of a teen’s network of friends online wasn’t directly associated with use of alcohol and smoking. Rather, it was how many of these friends bragged about their risky behavior which most influenced the teens to do the same.

According to Dr. Huang, this is an important distinction given how many teens spend their time on social networks like Facebook.

“The evidence suggests that friends’ online behaviors are a viable source of peer influence,” said Dr. Huang in a statement. “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.”

At the time the students were being interviewed, nearly a third said they had tried smoking. Another third of the teenage respondents said they had friends who drank and or smoked. The USC report claims almost half of the students they interviewed were on Facebook or Myspace. The most popular option was Facebook, scoring 75 percent of the teens who reported being a frequent visitor to social networking sites. Fewer teens said they used Myspace, accounting for only 13 percent of online teens.

Though the study categorizes how many teens are involved in risky behaviors and how many are online, this study fails to draw a direct association between seeing a picture online and having a drink or smoking. Instead the study claims many teens are on social networks, twenty percent of them say they have friends who post party pictures online, and thirty to fifty percent of them have engaged in one or both of these illegal activities.

As a counterpoint, a 2012 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found social networks could actually be helpful to teens, giving them an opportunity to expand their social connections and academic opportunities. This study did point out two potential pitfalls for teens who use social networks; an increase in cyber bullying and sexting.

Nonetheless, Dr. Huang believes these basic stats should act as a warning to teachers and parents.

“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,” said Dr. Huang.