Monday, 31 October 2016

Digital Pathways to the Keg: Is your drinking being influenced by social media?

You’ve likely seen it before. The photo of that guy at a party, beer in hand, floor covered in the remains of last nights’ party. Or the girl in the group photo, red solo cup in hand, eyes glossy and fighting to remain open. These are just a couple of the classic photos seen on social media every day. But rarely do we think about how this photo affects our thoughts, emotions or even our behaviour. A photo of a fluffy creature rolling around, well that probably sparks happy thoughts. But what about the group of individuals playing a drinking game at a house party, what does that evoke?

15 years ago Facebook didn’t exist, Snapchat and Instagram weren’t even ideas, and alcohol was consumed at a much lower rate than it is today. Specifically, one study found that 94% of first year undergraduate students were using at least one social media site, with 85% of Facebook profiles making at least one reference to alcohol. With advances in technology adolescents and young adults are being exposed to a wide range of media that was never available before, and with this comes potential unintended consequences. With the newer additions, of Snapchat and Instagram platforms to social media, recent research has been looking at the potential effects this content can have on its followers. More so because the former, Snapchat, allows users to send media that disappears after the receiver views it. Meaning that individuals are more likely to send media of risky behaviour or illegal acts. And while some have found evidence of the possible beneficial effects social media on well-being, others have found that social media may be linked to an increase in alcohol use.

Boyle and Colleagues at Loyola Marymount University in California have been doing research on how exposure to alcohol related social media content of peers, may influence the viewer’s future alcohol consumption. Their studies have revealed interesting findings that have sparked further research in this domain, creating a new perspective on the use of social media sites. One of the notable findings of Boyle’s paper was that exposure to alcohol related social media content was predictive of alcohol consumption 6 months later.

Why might they have found these results? Other researchers have noted a connection between exposure to advertisements and subsequent alcohol consumption. Boyle suggests that the theory behind social media being a predictor of future alcohol consumption works in a similar manner. Whereby individuals who are repeatedly exposed to their peers’ social media posts of alcohol related content, will then be influenced to consume more alcohol themselves. This type of effect is called mere exposure, which occurs when individuals are repeatedly exposed to an object or image and then afterwards feel a stronger emotion towards that object. Note that this effect cannot change attitudes, but only heighten them.

Boyle's research also found that although females spent more time on social media, males were more susceptible to the influences of alcohol related content in social media. Researchers explained this may have occurred because males are more task/information oriented when it comes to their online behavior, meaning that they tend to use social media to gather general information, possibly about the culture of their social environment. From this, university and college males in particular, may infer that alcohol is an important part of the college experience and thus value it more. Which then in turn, makes males think about alcohol related content more frequently, increasing their likelihood to consume alcohol more frequently.
What does this mean for the future of social media users? Fortunately, there is hope. Although the findings of this study are convincing, the researchers were looking at how predictive social media is on future alcohol consumption – meaning that we cannot infer that social media is the sole cause of alcohol use. And since this is still a relatively new topic, further research must be done to confirm these findings. Also, research done thus far has only focused on college and university students, meaning that, we know little on how other individuals are affected by the use of social media and whether this phenomena only occurs in university/college students. Hopefully this research and more in the future will give us a better understanding of the effects of using social media, and to what role it has on alcohol use. But for now, you can feel guilt free scrolling through your newsfeed!


Boyle, S. C., LaBrie, J. W., Froidevaux, N. M., & Witkovic, Y. D. (2016). Different digital paths to the keg? how exposure to peers' alcohol-related social media content influences drinking among male and female first-year college students. Addictive Behaviors, 57, 21. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.01.011

Egan, K. G., & Moreno, M. A. (2011). Alcohol references on undergraduate males’ facebook profiles. American Journal of Men's Health, 5(5), 413-420. doi:10.1177/1557988310394341

- Maya Ingrao

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