Social Media’s Impact on Underage Drinking: Youth Culture’s New “Alcohol Identity”

Guest Blog by Dr. Crystal Collier, Director of the Choices Prevention Program & Prevention Research for The Council on Recovery

Social media is social life for today’s youth. The majority of all social networking platform users are between the ages of 18-29 years old, with 92% of teens aged 13-17 going online every day. Today, being online means exposure to non-regulated alcohol advertising, pro-alcohol messages, and images of drinking behavior that reach underage online social media users. Adolescents who use social media (~70% nationwide) are more likely to engage in alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use when compared to their offline peers. Current research indicates that online displays of alcohol behavior correlate to risky drinking behavior offline. A recent study reported that 75% of teens seeing photos on social networks of other teens drinking or smoking weed encourages them to party in the same way. Exposures such as these contribute to how youth craft and manage their online identity and may result in the establishment of an ‘alcohol identity’.

Traditional restrictions on television that protect youth from alcohol advertising do not apply online. Researchers in this area have begun to measure exposure to and impact of alcohol-related content. Such content may include texts (e.g., “I got so drunk last night”), pictures depicting alcohol consumption (e.g., red solo cups), or links to alcohol-related activities or groups (e.g., fraternity parties, electronic dance music [EDM] festivals). Youth who commonly display high-risk behavior online consistently engage in these activities offline. In addition, adolescents who display engagement in one high-risk behavior (e.g., alcohol use) often engage in others (e.g., risky sexual activity).

Social learning theory is powerfully at play online. Adolescents are more likely to display references to high-risk behavior if a peer displayed similar references. Pro-alcohol attitudes and consequences are frequently proliferated whereas, negative consequences of alcohol use are rarely posted. Unregulated marketing enhances the high-risk social media frenzy when alcohol companies ask users to “like” their products and post pictures of themselves drinking a specific brand when attending events sponsored by the corporation. These same alcohol companies are the ones asking their young drinkers to use dedicated hashtags when posting drinking pictures more often than they encourage their followers to drink responsibility and get home safely.

Social media is rapidly becoming a powerful tool of influence as young people build their identities. New theories such as the Media Practice Model and the Facebook Influence Model posit that youth are able to develop online identities in real time, based on exposure to social media and peer feedback. This has given rise to disturbing new trends including portraying oneself as a binge drinker, and creating and posting videos/live streams while engaging in drinking and driving or substance use. Research indicates that adolescents and college students who display alcohol references on their social media sites are more likely to engage in problem drinking and experience more negative consequences from their drinking behavior. The problem not only lies in personal posting but alcohol-related comments made by others. Peer comments such as, “Can’t wait to get hammered with you again!” or “What kind of drunk are you?” or “Nice drunk driving!” serve to socially reinforce alcohol identities and further increase problematic drinking behavior.

Implications for parents, clinicians, and prevention specialists are becoming evident. Effective prevention must include best-parenting practices regarding digital citizenship, healthy online identity creation, and the use of social media in delivering health conscious messages and images. Social media algorithms to screen and identify youth for harmful alcohol use, user-generated health conscious content, and key-word generated treatment links could be sent to users if words such as “drunk”, “intoxicated”, “drunk drive” appear in their feeds. Location-based mobile tracking features could connect consumers to safe-driving alternatives or health services. Given that youth are likely to “untag” themselves from social networking pictures if they dislike how they are being depicted, prevention programming and parenting practices should include teaching youth how to create online, “tagable” identities that are not only cool projections of self, but protective.

10 Things Parents Can Do to Protect Against Negative Social Media Exposure

  1. Teach the 9 Elements of Digital Citizenship and hold children accountable for being good digital citizens. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2VnAU2lbf2c
  2. Reward children with smart phones ONLY when they are smart enough to use them appropriately and stay off of negative apps and websites.
  3. Collect all usernames and passwords for all digital technology and apps. Digital device usage should be contingent upon children being forthright regarding this information.
  4. Monitor digital technology including what children post on apps. https://www.tomsguide.com/us/best-parental-control-apps,review-2258.html
  5. As a condition for using digital technology, children must receive permission from parents before downloading any apps. The digital devices are your property, not theirs.
  6. Give consequences when children fail to be good digital citizens by posting inappropriate pictures, posts, being disrespectful toward others online, failing to be forthcoming about passwords, downloading apps without permission, or acting impulsively online.
  7. Consequences should include loss of cell phone or other digital technology device. Loss of the digital technology device for a few days or weeks is an appropriate natural consequence. If parents have FOBOC with their child (Fear of Being Out of Contact), they should give their child a flip phone. This is another appropriate consequence!
  8. Teach children how to create a healthy online identity and how to spot unhealthy online identities. https://www.commonsensemedia.org/videos/online-identity-guide-for-kids#;  https://www.amazon.com/Light-Bright-Polite-Parents-Teens/dp/098840396X
  1. Check for hidden apps on your child’s cell phone and digital devices. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KI1OAgq_Xo
  2. DO NOT allow children to download apps like Snapchat, ASKfm or Finsta. Pictures or texts that need to be hidden are usually not appropriate.

About the author: Dr. Crystal Collier has been working with children, adolescents, and adults suffering from mental illness, behavior disorders, and substance abuse since 1991.  Crystal is currently the Director of the Choices Prevention Program & Prevention Research for The Council on Recovery in Houston, TX. Her innovative, comprehensive prevention program, Choices, was selected for the 2015 Prevention and Education Commendation from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence and is currently being evaluated by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. In addition, Crystal teaches counseling skills and addiction classes as an adjunct professor for students excited about becoming clinicians.