Peer pressure hasn’t gone away. It’s just gone digital.
Through surveys of more than 260 high school freshmen and sophomores, FIU Center for Children and Families researchers found friends still hold the greatest power over teens’ substance use decisions — rather than influencers, celebrities and other people on social media.
The findings, recently published in Drug and Alcohol Review, showed teens were more likely to drink alcohol and use marijuana if their friends posted about it on Instagram and Snapchat.
“Likes and comments — what we call quantifiable reinforcement — from these popular social media platforms suggest approval of risk behaviors,” said lead author Julie Cristello, a doctoral candidate in the FIU Clinical Science Program in Child and Adolescent Psychology. “Adolescent substance use often occurs in the context of peers or friends, which is why we think content shared by friends was more influential than content shared by influencers.”
Social media can open windows to depictions of glamorized substance use. Teens now spend more time online than at school, with an average screentime of about eight-and-a half hours a day. Recent data shows media use among adolescents has increased significantly since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, adolescence is the developmental period in which youth begin to experiment with alcohol or drugs. According a national report, alcohol is the most widely used substance by teenagers and for drugs, marijuana has the highest prevalence.
This is why researchers wanted to see if there was a connection between social media and substance use.
Prior research on the impact of social media on substance use has often only focused on Facebook, a platform with declining popularity among adolescents, or only on alcohol use. This study examined multiple different substances, social media platforms more popular among teens, such as Instagram and Snapchat, and different socialization contexts.
In one part of the study, teens answered questions, like “How often do you see text or pictures posted by peers (people that you know personally) related to alcohol, drinking, being drunk or hungover when you check Instagram?” and “How often do you see text or pictures posted by celebrities, musicians, athletes or other influential figures (people that you do not know personally) related to marijuana, or being high when you check Snapchat?”
They were also asked how often their three closest friends approve of and drink alcoholic beverages and approve of and use marijuana, as well as when they last used these substances. Cristello and the team then examined associations and patterns within the data.
The team found many adolescents are being exposed to alcohol- and marijuana-related content on Instagram and Snapchat.
Among study participants, 32.95% reported seeing alcohol-content posted by peers and 39.39% reported seeing alcohol-content posted by influential figures on Instagram occasionally, often or almost always, while 31.44% reported seeing alcohol-content posted by peers, and 22.72% reported seeing alcohol-content posted by influential figures on Snapchat occasionally, often or almost always.
Similarly, 41.28% reported seeing marijuana-content posted by peers and 34.09% reported seeing marijuana-content by influential figures on Instagram occasionally, often or almost always, while 39.0% reported seeing marijuana-content posted by peers and 22.72% reported seeing marijuana-content posted by influential figures on Snapchat occasionally, often or almost always.
“In future work, we need to identify which social media features may be contributing to perceptions of approval among teens,” Cristello said.
Cristello is continuing her research through a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that provides advanced training in social media and substance use.
Rosanna Castro contributed to this story.
Concerned about your teens' social media use?
Researchers say parents and caregivers should monitor their teen’s social media use, while also promoting their independence and giving them privacy. One way to do this is to engage in conversations with teens about what they like about social media, what they see on social media and ways to respond to harmful content online. They also point out not all social media is bad, and can be a form of social support and networking.