Forget Dungeons And Dragons: Watch Out for Facebook As The New Scapegoat

It used to be that Dungeons and Dragons or video games were the convenient catch-all excuse for teenage behaviour, but Facebook is likely to get the blame for risky behaviour these days, if new research on teenage drinking and smoking is anything to go by.

In this week's science-related news, public health researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) say that teenagers who see friends smoking and drinking alcohol in photographs posted on Facebook and Myspace are more likely to smoke and drink themselves.

Three young men with beer from Shutterstock

We're used to seeing video and role-playing games blamed for being the causes of teen behaviour - the research in this case is pretty cautious, but the researcher's say there's definitely a link.

"Our study shows that adolescents can be influenced by their friends' online pictures to smoke or drink alcohol," said Thomas W. Valente, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, who was the study's principal investigator. "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."

The research team from USC surveyed 1,563 10th-grade students from a High School District in Los Angeles in October 2010 and April 2011 about their online and offline friendship networks. They asked them how frequently they used social media use, how often they smoked or drank alcohol.

When they looked at the results, they found that whether or not teens engaged in drinking or smoking wasn't link to how many facebook friends they had, or how many offline friends.

This is unusual - someone's "popularity" is generally a guide as to how much risky behaviour they'll get involved in - but they authors are quick to point out that Facebook friend circles are not like offline friend groups in that there's no clear way to tell close and influential friends from mere acquaintances.

Exposure to friends' online pictures of partying or drinking, however, was linked to both smoking and alcohol use. Even teens whose close friends did not drink alcohol were more likely to be affected by increasing exposure to online pictures of partying, the study found. This means that the results can't be explained as it being that risk taking teens just hang out together.

Nearly 30 percent of respondents had smoked and more than half had at least one drink of alcohol at the time of the survey. Roughly one-third had at least one friend who smoked and/or consumed alcohol. In comparison, 34 percent had at least one friend who talked about partying online and 20 percent reported that their friends posted party/drinking pictures online.

When more than 90 percent of teenagers use the internet every day, and more than 80 percent use social networking, the authors of the study say that their research shows how much social media is a source of peer pressure and influence. It helps to create social norms that reinforce that smoking and drinking is okay - with the behaviour of teens whose offline friends don't smoke and drink used as an example of how much it can affect them.

The authors point out that they don't have any way to tell how teens interpreted the pictures of partying that they saw online and that the pictures could have been distributed through a number of channels, not just Facebook. It's great to see them being cautious in how they attribute the cause and effect.

Teens intepretation of the images they see is key to how much we can hold Facebook responsible, if at all: it's possible that teens who hang out with a non-partying crowd seek out partiers online, rather than that they are necessarily influenced by them. How many of us would have tried out more experimental stuff in high school if we could have found a way to get access?

Because the background of the researchers is public health, they hope their research helps people realise the need to adjust the messages they give teens about risky behaviour to take account of their changing online behaviour, which is a noble goal. It's all too plausible to see, however, that people will read this sort of research and blame Facebook for teens' drinking habits.

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