Social media use puts teens at risk of developing drug and alcohol problems

New research has found that teens who are active on social media are exposed to content that could put them at risk for drug and alcohol problems.

The study, led by Brienna Rutherford, a PhD student at the University of Queensland, from UQ’s National Center for Youth Substance Use Researchexamined how content relating to drug and alcohol use was presented on social media.

“We looked at almost 16 million posts on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok and Weibo and found that the majority of content about drug and alcohol use was portrayed in a positive light,” Ms Rutherford said. .

“This positive portrayal is concerning as teenagers and young adults are the most vulnerable and heavy users of social media globally, spending an average of eight hours a day online.

“There is evidence to show that adolescents who are exposed to high levels of substance use are more likely to use and develop problems with alcohol, tobacco and cannabis.

“In fact, the use of alcohol and drugs is the main contributor to disease in teenagers and young adults.

“Better restrictions are needed on social media platforms to ensure that underage users do not engage or are exposed to potentially harmful content.”

The study found that user-generated content portraying substance use as positive was most prevalent on social media, which is likely to influence the behavior of teen viewers.

Only about 21% of the posts in the sample came from public health and education organizations sharing information about the harmful effects of substance use.

Ms Rutherford says public health education agencies need to do more to communicate the potential risks of substances.

Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for change and, if harnessed correctly, could be a tremendous asset for public health messaging.

Social media is a huge opportunity for public health organizations to educate adolescents about the risks associated with substance use.”

Brienna Rutherford, PhD student, UQ National Center for Youth Substance Use Research

Currently, there are age restrictions on graphic content involving sexual themes or high-risk behavior, but substance use is relatively unregulated online.

Many platforms have taken a blanket approach to ban or restrict related hashtags, but they can be easily found by publicly available internet search engines.


The University of Queensland

Journal reference:

Rutherford, BN, et al. (2022) #TurntTrending: A Systematic Review of Representations of Substance Use on Social Media Platforms. Addiction.

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